APKWS II: Laser-Guided Hydra Rockets in Production At Last
Oct 22/13: Testing. BAE announces that the US Army completed 8 successful tests from an AH-64D Apache. Shots were fired at up to 150 knots, from as far as 5 kilometers from the target, at altitudes between 300 and 1,500 feets. This meet airworthiness requirements.
The versatile Hydra 70mm rocket family is primed for a new lease on life, thanks to widespread programs aimed at converting these ubiquitous rockets into cheap laser-guided precision weapons. Conversion benefits include cost, use on both helicopters and fighters, more precision weapons per platform, low collateral damage, and the activation of large weapon stockpiles that couldn’t be used under strict rules of engagement.
Firms all over the world have grasped this opportunity, which explains why strong competition has emerged from all points of the compass. America’s “Advanced Precision-Kill Weapon System (APKWS)” is one of those efforts, but the road from obvious premise to working weapon has been slow. After numerous delays and false starts since its inception in 1996, an “APKWS-II” program finally entered System Design and Development (SDD) in 2006. In 2010, it entered low-rate production, and it was fielded to the front lines in 2012. That date will still put APKWS on the cutting edge of battlefield technology, as a leading player in a larger trend toward guided air-to-ground rockets.
The USA’s APKWS Programs
Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and BAE Systems were all battling for the APKWS program, which could pick up large US and international orders, and remain in production for a long time. BAE Systems’ team won in April 2006, but Lockheed Martin and Raytheon both proceeded with independent efforts to develop their own products. Meanwhile, the Army’s APKWS budget request was “zeroed” out in FY 2008.
Fortunately for BAE and General Dynamics, the US Navy kept them in the game. In November 2008, they formally picked up the APKWS-II System Design & Development (SDD) contract, and kept it going. SDD finished in November 2009, and evaluations wrapped up in January 2010. APKWS-II was approved through Milestone C in April 2010, and initial production orders followed in July 2010. A February 2011 JCTD contract will add APKWS to fixed-wing fighters: the USMC’s AV-8B Harriers, and the USAF’s A-10C Thunderbolt close air support planes. By January 2012, the 1st fixed-wing test firing had added the AT-6C turboprop light attack plane to this list, and showed clear potential for broader fielding. The US military fielded APKWS in March 2012, beginning with US Marine Corps UH-1 utility and AH-1 attack helicopters. The 1st Full Rate Production order was placed at the end of July 2012.
APKWS: Concept and Weapon
The BAE and General Dynamics team offered an unusual approach to APKWS-II, in order to solve the problems inherent in launching several guided rockets at once. Instead of adding a guidance unit to the rocket’s nose, where it could be damaged or confused by the flames, corrosive soot, overpressure etc. created by nearby rocket firings, they opted for a mid-body guidance approach. BAE’s Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker (DASALS) uses fiber-optic connections to a set of optical sensors, distributed within the rocket’s pop-out fins.
Since the fins are folded and sealed during firing, their seekers are protected. The technical challenge after that, is making sure that the pop-out fins don’t flex or vibrate a lot in flight. The use of distributed sensors can compensate for some movement, but too much movement would create accuracy problems for the DASALS optical bench.
The entire guidance section screws in between the warhead section and the rocket motor section, and can be added in the field.
Since the seeker is a semi-active laser, rather than a beam-rider, APKWS can be directed by laser sources beyond its launcher, so long as they have the correct laser modulation code. This is a standard approach for laser guided missiles, but some competitors still use beam-riding guidance. Thales low-end LMM missile, for instance, will begin as a beam rider.
APKWS Fixed-Wing is actually a different rocket, because it has to survive and perform through the freezing temperatures of high-altitude flight, as well as the high turbulence of high speed aircraft. That means a different guidance control system for the rocket, and a redesigned deployment mechanism for the 7-rocket pod.
APKWS has been qualified for use aboard USMC UH-1Y utility and AH-1 Cobra/Viper attack helicopters, and from Bell’s militarized 407GT scout helicopter. Successful APKWS-FW tests have been conducted from AT-6 turboprops, and from A-10C Thunderbolt II, AV-8B Harrier II, and F-16 jets.
Why APKWS? Combat Advantages
A 70mm rocket’s size and warhead are good enough for most military targets, offering both reduced collateral damage compared to larger missiles, and greater warhead flexibility. Precision rockets can carry infantry-killing flechettes, dispersed bomblets, small unitary warheads, and more. Adding thermobaric warheads creates a system that can kill personnel, destroy most armored personnel carriers and lighter vehicles; and even collapse buildings, if the Marines’ SMAW experiences in Fallujah are any indication. All without incurring the high-end price of full anti-armor missiles like the TOW RF, Hellfire, etc.
Using 70mm rockets also benefits the platforms carrying them to the battlefield. Laser-guided rockets would expand the range of aircraft, helicopters, and UAVs carrying precision weapons, as well as increasing the number of precision weapons each platform carries. The future of warfare may even see small rocket pods mounted on some ground vehicles, if recent experiments with Boeing’s Humvee-mounted Avenger system are any indication. That would conserve valuable missile rounds by eliminating easy targets like UAVs, provide a second type of guidance threat against incoming helicopters and aircraft, and create the option of using the system in ground combat against infantry positions or vehicles.
Each of those changes, individually, is a significant increase in combat power. All of those changes together would make US Army precision fires nearly ubiquitous on the battlefield, alongside weapons fired from UAVs, and guided ground-launched rockets, mortars, and artillery shells. When coupled with persistent surveillance concepts like Task Force ODIN, it nudges the Army and USAF toward a more equal footing of “federated airpower” in counterinsurgency fights. In full-scale battles like the 1991 Desert Storm, it can turn NATO’s long-standing “assault breaker” doctrine of tactical decapitation into routine procedure, as enemies showing leadership behaviors are quickly targeted from the air or ground, and eliminated.
Beyond the USA, laser guided 70mm rockets open up a large market for counterinsurgency weapons. Many countries operate older fixed wing planes as their primary strike force, but haven’t been able to afford the expensive conversions and weapons that precision attack requires. With guided rockets, that goal is suddenly within reach. Rocket pods are a universal weapon option, almost all countries have existing stocks of unguided rockets, and targeting can even be done by troops on the ground. This setup can work with very basic aircraft integration, so the technical and cost requirements aren’t difficult. What’s difficult, is the training and coordination required to make close air support effective. Which may not stop eager customers.
Contracts and Key Developments
APKWS is designed as a screw-in insert to existing 70mm rockets, so it’s bought as mid-body “guidance sections.” BAE Systems Information and Electronics in Nashua, NH is the official prime contractor, though they’re partnered with General Dynamics. US Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) in Patuxent River, MD manages the contracts.
FY 2011 – 2013
Fixed-wing, Apache tests. IOC; combat deployment. FRP-2.
Oct 22/13: Testing. BAE announces that the US Army completed 8 successful tests from an AH-64D Apache. Shots were fired at up to 150 knots, from as far as 5 kilometers from the target, at altitudes between 300 and 1,500 feets. This meet airworthiness requirements.
Sept 27/13: Testing. CENTCOM releases a Military Utility Assessment (MUA) confirming that the APKWS FW fixed-wing variant has met its performance targets in test shots from the USAF’s A-10C Thunderbolt IIs and F-16s, and the USMC’s AV-8B Harrier II V/STOL fighters. The rocket has also been tested from AT-6 turboprops, but that work took place under the Light Air Support program.
APKWS FW is actually a different rocket, because it has to survive and perform through the freezing temperatures of high-altitude flight, as well as the high turbulence of high speed aircraft. That means a different guidance control system for the rocket, and a redesigned deployment mechanism for the 7-rocket pod. Sources: US NAVAIR, “Rocket safe for fixed wing aircraft, ends demonstration phase”.
April 2/13: Testing. Eglin AFB announces successful tests of the APKWS laser-guided 70mm rocket from an A-10C, marking the 2nd test from a fixed-wing aircraft (a Beechcraft AT-6B was the 1st). For the final A-10C test sortie, 2 APKWS rockets were fired at a surface target at altitudes of 10,000 and 15,000 feet. The first rocket hit within inches, and the 15,000 foot shot hit within 2 meters despite a 70-knot headwind.
The USAF used a US Navy rocket launcher, because the guidance section adds 18″ to the Hydra rocket. If the USAF continues to move forward with APKWS on the A-10C and F-16, they’ll buy the Navy’s modified launchers to replace their 7-rocket LAU-131s. The US Navy is preparing to qualify APKWS on the MQ-8C VTUAV, USMC AV-8B Harrier II V/STOL jets, and F/A-18 family fighters. Pentagon DVIDS.
March 4/13: Bell 407 qualified. BAE Systems announces that APKWS is now qualified on Bell Helicopters 407GT, after a 7-shot test at Yuma, AZ. The Bell 407 joins that firm’s AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom helicopters, and Beechcraft’s AT-6B light attack turboprop, as qualified APKWS platforms. Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8B Fire Scout helicopter UAV is expected to follow shortly.
BAE Precision Guidance Solutions director David Harrold says that the qualification “is significant because [the 407GT] is Bell Helicopter’s first commercially qualified, armed helicopter…” It’s also significant because the US Navy is about to introduce its MQ-8C UAV based on the 407, and Iraq has already fielded armed Bell 407s. The MQ-8C combines a Bell 407 airframe with Fire Scout electronics.
Nov 27/12: FRP-2. A $41.4 million firm-fixed-price contract modification, exercising an option for 1,476 APKWS-II WGU-59/B Guidance Sections, shipping and storage containers, and support technical data. That makes 3,386 production kits ordered so far.
Work will be performed in Nashua, NH (70%), and Austin, TX (30%), and is expected to be complete in September 2014. All contract funds are committed (N00019-12-C-0006).
July 31/12: FRP begins with FY 2012 order. A $28.1 million firm-fixed-price contract for 985 APKWS-II WGU-59/B guidance sections, Navy shipping and storage containers; and support technical data. That makes 1,910 production APKWS kits ordered so far.
Work will be performed in Nashua, NH (70%), and Austin, TX (30%), and is expected to be complete in December 2013. This contract was not competitively procured pursuant to FAR 6.302-1 by US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD (N00019-12-C-0006). A subsequent BAE release confirms that this is the beginning of Full Rate Production, and confirms that APKWS is available for foreign military sales.”
Full-rate production &
April 17/12: APKWS to Afghanistan. BAE announces that APKWS was cleared for fielding by Marine Corps HQ, and shipped to Afghanistan in March 2012. The cite over 100 firings since 2007, with a 94% success rate, and an average distance from the center of laser spot to the impact point of less than one meter.
The rockets will initially be deployed on USMC AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, and UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters.
The Program’s Manager Navy Captain Brian Corey said that Initial Operating Capability (IOC) had been declared on March 27. The Navy is working to integrate the weapon on MQ-8 Fire Scouts by 2013. US NAVAIR | BAE Systems.
IOC & combat deployment
January 2012: 1st Fixed-Wing Shots. APKWS is fired from a HawkerBeechcraft AT-6C turboprop light attack plane at Eglin AFB, its 1st fixed-wing shots. BAE says they’re still working to upgrade APKWS so it can handle high-speed, high-g firings from fighter jets, per the Feb 10/11 JCTD contract.
The AT-6C shots were step 1, and involved 2 rockets: an unguided round as a demonstration of safety and basic operation, followed by a guided shot from 3 miles that “successfully hit within inches of the center.” As an added demonstration, BAE Systems personnel added the APKWS mid-bodies and assembled the rockets on site. Time from beginning of assembly to flight and the successful shot was 3 hours.
The shots will help both BAE and HawkerBeechcraft, whose setback in the 20-plane American LAS competition was mitigated by an initial sale of 6 “weapons capable” T-6C+ to Mexico. Mexico has used existing Pilatus trainers against domestic insurgencies before. The T-6C family’s proven ability to fire laser-guided rockets makes the new planes more valuable to Mexico, and to other potential customers. BAE | HawkerBeechcraft | Aviation Week.
1st fixed-wing shot
Sept 9-13/11: New warhead. USMC UH-1Y helicopters successfully fire 6 APKWS-II rockets at targets 1.5km – 5 km away (3 miles maximum) on the range at China Lake, CA. The tests are part of APKWS’ low-rate initial production phase, and mark the 1st time that the new, safer Mk152 warhead has been fired from any air vehicle.
APWKS-II fielding is still set for 2012. BAE Systems.
Feb 10/11: Fighter JCTD. BAE Systems in Nashua, NH receives a $19.7 million cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for development of the fixed wing APKWS-II for deployment on USMC AV-8B Harriers and USAF/ANG A-10C aircraft, as a joint capability technology demonstration.
American fast jets must currently rely on aging AGM-65 Maverick missiles for laser-guided strikes. An update and production relaunch is underway, but a full-size Maverick missile can be overkill. Using laser-guided 70mm rockets instead would sharply increase the number of laser precision strike weapons on board, using cheaper weapons. It’s not a perfect substitute, but it would be an excellent complement.
Work will be performed in Nashua, NH, and is expected to be complete in May 2013. $7.5 million will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, on Sept 30/11. This contract was not competitively procured, pursuant to FAR 6.302-1, by US Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, MD (N00019-11-C-0033).
APKWS for fighters, too
Jan 3/11: LRIP-2 order. BAE Systems Information and Electronics in Nashua, NH receives a $17.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for the 2nd Low Rate Initial Production Lot (LRIP-II) of 600 APKWS II guidance sections for the US Navy, including shipping and storage containers.
Work will be performed in Nashua, N.H., and is expected to be completed in November 2012. US Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, MD manages the contract, which is presumably issued under N00019-10-C-0019.
FY 2008 – 2010
SDD. Milestone C.
July 30/10: LRIP-1 order. BAE Systems Information and Electronics in Nashua, NH receives a $15.3 million firm-fixed-price contract for the first Low Rate Initial Production Lot (LRIP-I) of 325 APKWS II guidance sections for the US Navy, including shipping and storage containers. The contract will also fund integration with the Marines’ new UH-1Y utility helicopter, technical and training manual updates, and support equipment and support test equipment.
Work will be performed in Nashua, NH, and is expected to be complete in October 2012. This contract was not competitively procured by US NAVAIR, pursuant to FAR 6.302-1 (N00019-10-C-0019). BAE Systems.
April 9/10: Milestone C, LRIP OKed. The US Navy has approved low-rate production of the APKWS after the weapons system passed its Milestone C. The USMC plans to initially deploy APKWS on its AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters. The Navy decision follows successful testing of the weapons system from the AH-1W helicopter in January (see Jan 11-18/10 entry). BAE Systems release
Jan 11-18/10 The USMC completes APKWS’ operational assessment, scoring 8 direct hits from AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters in live-warhead trials over 2 weeks. The final step in the APKWS development program is system qualification for the environments in which it might be employed, transported, and stored. That testing is expected to be finalized in time to allow the Navy to complete a production decision within the next 60 days, leading to low-rate initial production if the decision is positive. BAE Systems release.
Jan 4/10: Fixed-Wing JCTD. US FedBizOpps announces, in solicitation #N00019-10-C-0028:
“Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) intends to award a sole source contract to BAE Systems, Nashua, NH for the FY10-12 development of the Fixed Wing (FW) Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II for AV-8B and A-10 platforms to support a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD). It is anticipated that the resultant contract shall be Cost-Plus Incentive Fee type for the development of FW APKWS II weapons that show operational utility upon integration with AV-8B and A-10 platforms. Fifty (50) FW APKWS II plus FW APKWS II tests units (quantities TBD) including Navy Shipping and Storage Containers (NSSC) are to be delivered for technical demonstrations and operational assessments.”
The AV-8B is a USMC aircraft, while A-10s are operated by US Air National Guard and some USAF units.
Jan 4/10: In the combined synopsis/solicitation #N00421-10-T-0042, US FedBizOpps announces an RFQ on a firm fixed-price, sole-source basis with Summit Instruments, Inc., for APKWS-related electronics. Summit makes accelerometers and inertial measurement systems, which can be used to help precision weapons establish their position, just as a simpler set of accelerometer + software in an iPod Nano can tell you how far you’ve jogged today.
CLIN 0001 – Quantity 5 each, Repackage 65210E to fit in 2.75″ diameter rocket body and add 2GB memory… Award is expected 04 Jan 2010.
Nov 23-27/09: SDD done. During the final phase of SDD testing, 4 APKWS rockets fired from a U.S. Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter hit laser-designated moving and stationary targets under a variety of operational scenarios while the rockets were fired at varying altitudes and airspeeds. Each shot strikes well within the required distance from the laser spot.
Navy and BAE Systems representatives confirm that APKWS has undertaken 28 guided flights over the last 7 years. The weapons are known to have hit their targets 22 times since September 2002, and most of those firings (12) have been from USMC AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters. In the latest test series, there have been no APKWS issues.
The rockets are approaching Milestone C decision that approves a system’s performance, durability, safety, and successful integration with specified systems, and allows Low Rate Initial Production to begin. The US Navy will begin Operational Assessment of APKWS in January 2010, with 8 live fire events. In the next 12 to 14 months, the Navy expects to shoot approximately 90 weapons in combined developmental and operational testing, on the road to the program goal of Initial Operational Capability in 2011. BAE Systems.
Nov 13/09: BAE Systems announces that APKWS has entered its final phase of testing, intended to confirm both production readiness and reliable accuracy. According to BAE, APKWS has hit its targets 18 times since September 2002 in ground and air-launched shots, including a recent firing from a USMC AH-1 attack helicopter against a stationary target. That test firing initiated a sequence of more than 20 firings that will comprise the program’s final test phase, to be completed by the end of 2009.
BAE Systems and the Navy are preparing for Navy demonstration test flights and full government qualification testing, with a goal of production in 2010.
Nov 4/08: BAE Systems announces that the APKWS contract has been transferred from the U.S. Army to the Department of the Navy.
Development funding will also be used for testing and qualification of APKWS for use on the Marine Corps’ AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter, and BAE Systems’ Nashua facility plans to begin producing the rockets at the end of 2009.
July 15/08: BAE Systems announces that the Department of the Navy will assume the $45.7 million APKWS development contract with BAE Systems to complete demonstrations of the system. The Navy is expected to assume that contract by end of August 2008, and the contractor team plans to begin APKWS production in 2009.
April 9/08: Saved by the Navy. Congress approves the APKWS-II Reprogramming Request. In combination with the President’s Budget Request for FY09 (submitted to Congress the first week of February), the Reprogramming approval makes APKWS-II’s development phase a fully-funded program. This development represents a major breakthrough for the BAE/GD offering, which now looks as if it will survive long enough to reach the competitive market.
Whether their APKWS-II can continue its success, and win volume orders against a growing set of rival systems from Lockheed Martin, ATK, Raytheon, et. al., remains to be seen at this point. As noted below, the US Navy is also funding a LOGIR program with Korean cooperation. It’s also a guided 70mm rocket, but it uses Imaging Infrared instead of laser seekers. That makes it especially effective against swarm attacks by enemies like small boats, as there’s no need for ongoing guidance.
Saved by the Navy
FY 2005 – 2007
BAE win. Emerging competitors.
Sept 19/07: Testing. BAE Systems shoots 2 guided APKWS rockets from a U.S. Marine Corps Cobra helicopter at NAS China Lake, marking the weapon’s first flights from an aircraft. Following the launches, both APKWS rockets were guided by a laser designator to a ground target. The first rocket was guided to the target by a ground-based laser designator. The pilot guided the second rocket to the target using laser designation equipment onboard the helicopter. Both rockets struck the target board well within accuracy requirements established by the Army and Marine Corps.
The flights, held in partnership with the U.S. Navy program office, were designed to confirm the APKWS rocket’s compatibility with the Cobra’s carriage and launch systems, and to demonstrate that APKWS can be launched from the platform without requiring aircraft integration or modifications. The tests also proved again the weapon’s ability to acquire, track, and hit a laser-designated target. BAE Systems North America release.
BAE informs DID that the US Navy and USMC continue to pursue funding of APKWS-II within the FY 2008 appropriations process, with the goal of completing SDD and entering Milestone C in the second quarter of CY 2009. Meanwhile, development continues using FY 2007 funds.
April 11/07: BAE Systems’ APKWS II successfully completes environmental tests. They verified protection from sand, dust, vibration, ice, and other environmental hazards likely to be found in combat situations. Locating the weapon’s Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker (DASALS) within the rocket’s mid-body, with wings and optics sealed within the guidance section, certainly helps. In addition, a fully assembled 35-pound rocket dropped directly on its nose from a height of 3 feet sustained no damage to the guidance section. BAE Systems release.
March 19/07: Zeroed? BAE Systems informs DID that APKWS II funding has been zeroed out in the FY 2008 budget request, and they are putting the program on hold. Congressional reinstatement is always possible – but if it fails BAE may face an uphill battle getting its product to market, given the advance of competitors like Lockheed Martin’s DAGR and the US-Korean LOGIR.
March 7/07: Competitor – DAGR. Lockheed Martin may have lost, but it didn’t give up. While “Hellfire Jr.” is an apt description of the class as a whole, it’s especially apt in this case. The DAGR (70mm Direct Attack Guided Rocket, not to be confused with DAGR hand-held GPS locators) completed development with private company funding, leveraging existing Hellfire and Joint Common Missile technology to create semi-active guided rockets that offer a wider aiming cone and full Hellfire functionality. Indeed, they can be launched from any platform that currently supports the Hellfire missile, removing any requirements for additional training or infrastructure.
The DAGR rocket was formally unveiled as complete and for sale on Sept 11/07, at Britain’s DESi defense exhibition, and remains a strong competitor in the USA and beyond. See “Guided Hydra Rockets: Program Halts & New Entries” for more information and updates re: competitive programs from Lockheed Martin, Korea, Raytheon, ATK, et. al.
March 2/07: USN Competitor – LOGIR. Korea and the United States have agreed to cooperate in developing guided air-launched rockets, signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for “LOGIR” (Low-Cost Guided Imaging Rocket) development. The budget for this project is reportedly more than $60 million. See “Guided Hydra Rockets: Program Halts & New Entries” for more information and updates.
April 27/06: The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Life Cycle Management Command (AMCOM) awards a 3-year, $45.7 million contract to BAE Systems in Nashua, NH for the system development and demonstration of the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II. The contract includes priced options for qualification of the system and 2 years of Low Rate Initial Production that could begin as early as 2007. The total program, if all options are exercised, will be $96.1 million.
Interestingly, BAE Systems uses a mid-body guidance approach. The guidance component is its Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker (DASALS), which is also used in the Army’s Precision Guided Mortar Munitions Program. BAE Systems is partnered with General Dynamics (who makes the Hydra rockets) and Northrop Grumman, and is reported to be on track to provide the first production baseline units for evaluation prior to the Critical Design Review in July 2006. See also BAE North America release.
DID’s focus article for the Hydra-70 rocket family goes into more detail re: the past history of the APKWS effort, including its cancellation and replacement by the APKWS II competition.
BAE wins SDD
Sept 29/05: BAE Systems announces [BAE North America release | different BAE Systems release] 2 successful flight tests at the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. Their 70mm rockets scored direct hits on laser-designated stationary and moving targets.
BAE also announced that it will bid on APKWS II as a prime contractor, along with Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Dynamics. They join other consortia already in the APKWS II competition, led by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
- BAE Systems – Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS). See also video page.
- BAE Systems – Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker (DASALS™)
- DID Spotlight article – Guided Hydra Rockets: Program Halts & New Entries. Covers Lockheed Martin’s competing DAGR, which was formally unveiled as a complete, for-sale system on Sept 11/07, the US-Korean LOGIR program, and efforts from Canada, Israel, the UAE, France, and beyond. APKWS-II will have a lot of competitors.
- DID FOCUS article – Hydra-70 Rockets: From Cutbacks to the Future of Warfare.