Murphy's Law: Media Magic Revives Dead Missile


December 25, 2007: So close, so close. But after more than a decade of effort, the APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System), 70mm missile project has been, well, put to sleep. Its funding has been zeroed out in the latest U.S. defense budget, and the developer has been forced to do some fancy PR work to bring APKWS back from the dead.

The main reason for cutting off APKWS was that there are already lots of other good guided missile designs already out there (44 pound Viper Strike, hundred pound Hellfire and 600 pound Maverick), and that APKWS simply isn't needed. This, despite the fact that so much effort was put into getting APKWS to work.

Back in the Fall of 2005, after nine years of effort, the U.S. Army finally got the 70mm air-to-ground guided rocket to work, at least during tests. The APKWS (Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System) is a 25 pound rocket, with a laser seeker and a six pound warhead. It has a range of about six kilometers. The 2005 tests had one APKWS hit a stationary target 1.5 kilometers distant, while a second rocket hit a moving target 3.3 kilometers away. Laser designators on the helicopter, or with troops on the ground, is pointed at the target, and the laser seeker in the front of the APKWS homes on the reflected laser light.

The U.S. developed the 2.75 inch (70mm) rockets during World War II as an air-to-air weapon for use against heavy bomber formations. The Germans had also developed a similar, and successful, weapon (the R4M), but before long it was noted that neither the Japanese nor the Germans had any heavy bombers, and the U.S. 70mm rockets were switched to air-to-ground use. 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 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 were many variations in terms of warheads and rocket motors. Some versions can go over 10 kilometers.

Developing the APKWS took so long 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 army could afford. The price of the APKWS was supposed to get down to $20,000 each (about the cost of a smart bomb), but the manufacturers had problems doing that. As a result, Congress eventually lost patience.

But all is not lost. Although no new money is available for this fiscal year (which began last October 1st), there is still some money left from the 2007 budget, and the developer, BAE, can kinda, sorta, kick in some of its own. What will be done is conduct lots of "test firings" of APKWS this year, and grind out the press releases about how successful the weapon is. Despite the disinterest of Congress, the army and marines want APKWS. The more "smart" weapons the better, as far as the troops are concerned.


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