Air Weapons: Cheaper Is Not Always Better

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March 6, 2019: Just in time, the British Typhoon fighter aircraft were upgraded to handle one of the most popular and effective air-to-ground weapons used in the current bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria where the RAF (Royal Air Force) a lot of small, mobile targets. The Brimstone (a Hellfire variant that can be used by jet fighters) missile has, since 2008, shown they are the best weapon for those targets. The Typhoon was cleared to use Brimstone for service in January 2019 and a month later some of those aircraft were using those Brimstone missiles against targets in Iraq and Syria. This was a big help because the only other weapon available were Paveway IV laser-guided bombs which, while cheaper (at $39,000 each) are much larger and heavier as these are a 500 pound (228 kg) bomb with a laser guidance kit attached. Each Brimstone costs $139,000 but are much smaller (three can be carried in place of one Paveway IV), weighs 49 kg and has a longer range (60 kilometers versus 35 for Paveway). The latest Brimstone also has a better guidance system. For fighting Islamic terrorists and irregulars in general, the Brimstone is the preferred weapon for jet fighters. Until 2019 the only the only RAF warplane equipped to use Brimstone was the older Tornado fighter. But these were being retired and only about 20 were still in service. Meanwhile, there were 142 Typhoons. The remaining Tornados are to retire by March 2019.

Brimstone entered service in 2005 and was widely used in Libya during 2011 and were particularly effective there. Despite that for a long time Brimstone could only be used by one aircraft, the 1970s era Tornado GR4. This aircraft is only used by Britain and Saudi Arabia and is being replaced by the Typhoon.

A new Brimstone 2 entered service in 2015 but that did not make it any easier to upgrade Typhoon to handle Brimstone. Britain has been working on getting Typhoon equipped to handle both versions of Brimstone and in late 2017 most of the development and testing for this was successfully completed. But there were further delays and Brimstone was not ready for the Typhoon until late 2018. Originally this was to happen in 2021 but when it was realized that all the Tornados would be retired by then and 2018 was set as a more realistic date. The upgrade effort almost missed that deadline as well.

One reason for the Brimstone success in Libya was the use of three rails “Cobham launcher” which enabled Tornado to carry twelve Brimstones and Typhoon up to 18 Brimstones. In 2015 the Brimstone 2 entered service, again only on the Tornado but able to use the three rail launcher. Brimstone 2 has longer range (fired from jets) increased from 20 kilometers to 60 kilometers along with improvements in accuracy and reliability (it uses explosives that are less likely to detonate accidentally). At the new max range, the Brimstone takes up to three minutes to reach its target. Work is also underway to get Brimstone 2 working on the British Reaper UAVs and AH-64 gunships. Both of these aircraft already use Hellfire but Brimstone 2 is a major improvement over Hellfire for UAVs and helicopter gunships.

Originally developed as an upgraded version of the American Hellfire, Brimstone ended up as a Hellfire in general shape only. Weighing the same as the Hellfire (48.5 kg/107 pounds), Brimstone was designed to be fired from fighter-bombers, not just (as with Hellfire) from helicopters and UAVs. Aircraft can carry a lot of these lightweight missiles, especially once the Cobham launcher was available. These are perfect for small targets, including vehicles, which need to be hit without causing injuries to nearby civilians or friendly troops.

Brimstone entered service in 2005 and only a few thousand were produced. Use was low in Afghanistan because there were more places for the enemy to hide. Use was much higher in Libya because that conflict was fought along the coastal plain and in semi-desert areas further south. The Brimstone effectiveness in Libya led other nations to pay attention and seek to get Brimstone for their own use. This was a problem because production was unable to rapidly increase and production lines were already in the midst of retooling for the new Brimstone 2, which included a dual-mode (radar and laser) seeker to its Brimstone missiles. The Brimstone radar seeker makes it easier to use the missile in "fire and forget" mode. The laser seeker is more accurate (to within a meter or two of the aim point.) The nine kilogram (20 pound) Brimstone warhead is sufficient to destroy vehicles, without causing a lot of casualties to nearby civilians. British fighter pilots have become quite good at coming in low and taking out individual vehicles with Brimstone missiles. Carrying a dozen or more Brimstones, a fighter-bomber can easily use all of them in one sortie, all the while staying out of range of ground fire.

The U.S. has not adopted the Brimstone nor modified the Hellfire for “fast movers”. Instead, the Americans have adopted an even smaller laser-guided missile, the APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System). This a smaller Hellfire type design based on World War II era 70mm unguided rockets. This mini-Hellfire is basically a 13.6 kg (30 pound) 70mm rockets, with a laser seeker, flight controls, a 2.7 kg (six pound) warhead, and a range of about six kilometers. Since 2013 the U.S. has allowed APKWS on any jets equipped to fire it. At this point that includes the F-18C, the AV-8B, the F-35 and the A-10. As more of these jet pilots use APKWS (or Brimstone) more want it. Modern targeting pods make it easier to spot ground targets from a high altitude and promptly launch a laser guided missile.

 


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