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APKWS Unleashed: Laser-Guided Army & Marine Corps Helicopter Rockets Receive Anti-Armor Upgrade, Expanding Range, Guidance, and Lethality”

Army and Marine Corps attack helicopters and Air Force fixed-wing fighter jets have for years now been armed with Hydra 70 2.75in folding fin laser-guided rockets called the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System, a tested and extremely effective weapon.

Now APKWS is exploding in a new operational sphere with new technology, range, guidance and lethality, enhancements which are already expanding concepts of operation and tactics as they apply to modern warfare.

Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS)
In recent years, BAE Systems developers have taken specific measures to enable an “anti-armor” attack capability for APKWS, introducing a new tank-killing option for the smaller rockets. This of course increases lethality as it offers helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft the opportunity to extend their target envelope, mission dwell time and ability to conduct missions with more “shots” or weapons on board, given that HELLFIRE tank-killing missiles are much larger.

The APKWS bridges the gap between unguided rockets and anti-armor munitions,

“We’re adding anti-armor and allowing it to engage counter UAS Systems and fire from UAS Systems,” Samantha Kirsh, program manager, APKWS, BAE Systems told Warrior in an interview. “With anti armor, if you can have five or six more shots per sortie with these than you would with HELLFIRES. That’s a pretty big deal in terms of time on station dwell time and lethality.”

Close air support in the form of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft may often be confronted with a need to strike an entire column of incoming enemy armored vehicles, a tactical circumstance in which anti-armor-capable APKWS can fire many more shots than might otherwise be possible.

While some of the specifics of the targeting, range and explosiveness specifics are not available for security reasons, the upgraded weapon is not only more accurate and longer-range but also able to fire from new platforms such as drones and even ground-fired launchers for anti-drone missions.

“We also gave the weapon a longer range which reduced risk from surface danger zones, making it more available to be used for training to utilize the training ranges. We opened its envelope up. We also changed the way we were doing a few things with the system in order to make it more accurate.”

BAE engineers and weapons developers explained that the modifications made to the weapon were accomplished without compromising its compatibility with existing systems, yet also integrating an ability to fire from new platforms and perform counter-UAS missions from the ground.

“We have a product compatible with a broad platform of inventory, including rocket motors and warheads, and it doesn’t require modification to the platforms. We’ve extended to many different platforms beyond air to ground to include ground to air and ground to ground,” Greg Procopio, product line director, APKWS, BAE Systems.

For instance, the upgraded weapon will still easily fire from the Marine Corps Cobra helicopter while also shooting from the ground up into the air to destroy enemy drones, helicopters and even fixed-wing aircraft.

“What we did is we did not modify how the user is going to utilize the system or how they’re going to put the system together. We made no changes to any of the user interfaces. We just took advantage of those upgrades that we did. I call it a plug and play. It’s adaptable, right?… so all you do is screw it together just like you would with another warhead except you put this new warhead on and shoot it, and we now have an anti armor capability,” Procopio said. “What we want to do is allow the unit to be able to get some new information as it’s going through flight so I can better adapt his trajectory so that it can hit more accurately.”

As a laser-guided weapon, APKWS munitions follow a “laser-spot” or “designator” which can come from the air or the ground and in some cases even from the firing platform itself. BAE Systems has been testing technology enabling a laser-spot to come from a robotic vehicle or remote launcher. This opens up new tactical possibilities as it would enable newer, better networked applications of Combined Arms Maneuver in which surveillance and attacks were dispersed across wide-area maneuvers and capable of multi-domain operations. For instance, ground vehicles or fixed ground-launcher sites could “paint” a target for helicopters or aircraft to destroy with APKWS, and laser spotting can also enable the ability to strike a target “on-the-move.”

Producing the upgraded rockets at large volume helps lower the price, BAE Systems weapons developers explained.

“It’s available to allied nations through the FMS program. Our Navy customer really is an advocate for the benefit of the US government, in terms of reduced price through volume. But there’s a number of foreign militaries that are taking advantage of the product,” Kirsh said.