The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) has fielded the new BAE systems built Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System II (APKWS II) in Afghanistan where it is being used by the service’s UH-1Y and AH-1W helicopters in counter insurgency (COIN) operations against soft and lightly armored/hardened targets as well as fleeting – time critical – targets that may only be exposed for five seconds or so.
“This allows the possibility of a large number of precision kills (up to 76) on a single sortie with assault support aircraft by putting a volume of precision fires on them,” explained Capt. Brian “Zulu” Corey, APKWS program manager at NAVAIR’s PMA 242 (Direct and Time Sensitive Strike Program) while briefing media at the U.S. Navy League’s Sea Air Space Exposition in April 2012.
In essence, APKWS converts the standard 2.75-inch (70 mm) Hydra unguided rocket into a semi-active laser (SAL)-guided precision munition through the addition of a soda can-sized mid-body guidance unit (WGU-59/B) developed by BAE Systems. The mid-body design provides environmental protection – from the weather and the effects of adjacent rocket firings – and adds reliability to the guidance section.
BAE describes APKWS II as a “plug and play,” “point and shoot” weapon that is fired like the unguided 2.75-inch rocket with minimal crew training. The weapon is easily field assembled by removing the warhead, attaching the guidance section to the rocket motor using existing threads, then re-mounting the warhead to the guidance section and setting laser codes as well as activating an ‘on-off” switch.
APKWS II bridges a weapons gap between the machine guns and cannons, unguided rockets (with a range of 1000 meters to 6000 meters) and the anti-armor, laser guided Hellfire/ Hellfire II missile with a range of 1000 meters to 8000 meters.
BAE’s Director of Precision Guidance Solutions, John Watkins, says APKWS, costing a little over $30,000 per unit, is a precise rapid-fire missile system, available at one-third the cost and one-third of the weight of the existing inventory of laser-guided weapons. Crucially, it also enhances aircrew and launch platform survivability from close range anti-aircraft (AA) fire as it can be fired from standoff ranges.
Long Road to Success
Fielding this weapon system wasn’t easy, however. Culminating 17 years of efforts, the development of this weapon system was initially conceived by the U.S. Army in 1996, then picked up by the Department of the Navy in 2008, although the Marine Corps was interested in the program from the beginning. A lack of appropriate technologies stymied progress. “We needed it 10 years ago, but we did not have the technology back then,” says Corey.
After 10 years of development and testing, Initial Operational Test & Evaluation (IOT&E) with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 9 (VX-9) was completed in January 2012. VX-9, based at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake (NAWS), fired 35 shots in day and night conditions for the IOT&E phase, according to BAE.
In February 2012, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation approved the decision to field the system. PMA 242 declared Initial Operational capability (IOC) on March 27. In early March, the APKWS kits were shipped to Afghanistan. “Our confidence levels [from testing] were so high that we shipped the units directly [to the field units] in Afghanistan,” explains Corey, adding that “it’s proving as successful in combat as it has in testing.”
NAVAIR’s independent test agency, COMOPTEVFOR (Operational Test and Evaluation Force) declared APKWS to be “operationally effective and operationally suitable” on both the AH-1W and UH-1Y helicopters in mid-April 2012.
Describing it as “a simple program – using the same idea as adding laser guidance kits to unguided bombs – that wasn’t simple to do,” Corey says that there were several challenges.