Air Weapons: The Smaller And Cheaper Alternative

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June 17, 2016: India is, for the first time, allowing private firms to build military weapons. This breaks the monopoly of the state owned Ordnance Factory Board facilities which, because of politics and that fact that the Board employs nearly 200,000 people, has long been protected from commercial competition. That protection was worn down by the growing complaints from users and voters about poor quality products. This is the result of corruption and lack of competition, something that became more obvious since the 1990s when India began allowing more commercial competition for state owned firms.

One of the first weapons private firms can bid on are an Air Force request for 200,000 70mm guided rockets to be used on helicopters. Since no civilian firm has all the tech needed to produce these precision weapons it is understood that those who bid will have to obtain the needed technology from foreign firms. That should not be difficult because there are a number of foreign firms already producing such weapons and none of the tech involved is considered so valuable that it cannot be exported.

Since the late 1990s a growing number of smaller and cheaper air-launched laser guided weapons began to show up. By 2010 several different companies had developed laser guided versions of the World War II era 70mm air-to-ground rocket. Developing a guided 70mm rocket took longer than expected because the manufacturers underestimated the technical difficulties of getting the laser seeker and flight control mechanisms into that small a package, at a weight and price the customer could afford. The price of the new 70mm missile is now about $30,000 each. This is attractive to India because it is about a third less than a smart bomb and less than a third of what a Hellfire missile (longer used by American helicopters and UAVs) costs.

There are now several combat tested 70mm laser guided missiles out there. The U.S. Marine Corps have been using the APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) 70mm guided rockets on their AH-1Z helicopter gunships since 2010 as has SOCOM (Special Operations Command) on its slow moving AC-130 gunships. The marines were so pleased with it that they bought APKWS II kits to convert some of their 100,000 70mm unguided rockets to laser guided ones. All this began when the marines bought fifty APKWS II missiles for testing and that proved successful. There followed the first sale for 70mm guided rockets after more than a decade of trying to get anyone to buy more than a few evaluation missiles or upgrade kits. After marine AH-1s had fired several hundred APKWS II in Afghanistan and none of them missed the U.S. Department of Defense supported modifications so APKWS could be used on fast movers (jet aircraft).

The guided 70mm rocket is used against targets that don't require a larger (49 kg/108 pound), and more expensive (over $100,000), Hellfire missile but still needs some targeting precision. In tests the APKWS hit within a meter (a few feet) of the aiming point, about what Hellfire and similar missiles are capable of. The 70mm missile makes an excellent weapon for UAVs, especially since you can carry more of them. The launcher for carrying these missiles is designed to replace the one for Hellfire but can carry four missiles instead of one. APKWS can also be used from a modified Hydra launcher (that carries seven missiles) which was long used for the unguided 70mm rockets.

All these 70mm guided rockets are basically 13.6 kg (30 pound) 70mm rockets, with a laser seeker, a 2.7 kg (six pound) warhead, and a range of five kilometers from helicopters or 11 kilometers from fixed wing aircraft. Laser designators on a helicopter, aircraft, or with troops on the ground, are pointed at the target and the laser seeker in the front of the 70mm missile homes in on the reflected laser light.

The 2.75 inch (70mm) rockets were developed during World War II, as an air-to-air weapon for use against heavy bomber formations. The Germans had developed a similar and very successful weapon (the R4M). Before long it was noted that neither the Japanese nor the Germans had any heavy bombers, so the U.S. 70mm rocket was switched to air-to-ground use. Actually, the 70mm rocket was retained for air-to-air use into the 1950s, but it was never successful in that role. The 70mm rocket became very popular in the 1960s, when it was discovered that the weapon worked very well when launched from multiple (7 or 19 tube) launchers mounted on helicopters. The 108-138m cm (42-55 inch) long rockets could be fired singly or in salvoes and gave helicopter pilots some airborne artillery for supporting troops on the ground. There are many variations in terms of warheads and rocket motors. Some versions can go over ten kilometers.

For a long time orders for 70mm guided missiles were not forthcoming because the Hellfire was doing the job and there just wasn't a big demand for a smaller missile. Several smaller missiles have been developed and some of the, like the Griffin, has been used over Pakistan and Afghanistan on American UAVs. The marines, and now the navy and air force, believe that a mini-Hellfire, in the form of their APKWS II, has a role on the battlefield and plan to keep using it in combat. The APKWS is a lot cheaper than Hellfire or Griffin and for some situations is seen as a better choice. Things like that convinced India and a growing number of other nations to go for the smaller and cheaper alternative.

 


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