With budget walls beginning to close in, America’s military is looking for ways of meeting key warfighting requirements while spending less money. BAE Systems appears to have developed an effective way of achieving that goal in the area of precision attack by modifying unguided missiles carried on U.S. military aircraft to reliably destroy a wide array of targets without causing death or injury to nearby noncombatants. The basic idea is to insert a guidance package between the warhead and the motor on Hydra rockets that enables the weapon to home in on laser energy being reflected by illuminated targets. The result is a smart munition that costs only a third as much as a Hellfire missile and yet can kill pretty much anything a Hellfire can except tanks.
That’s quite a bargain at a time when most of the adversaries the U.S. military fights don’t have tanks. Adversaries like the Taliban and Al Qaeda typically present themselves on the battlefield as “soft” targets such as trucks or dismounted insurgents. The biggest challenge in killing them once they are found is to avoid civilian casualties, since they often shelter in areas where noncombatants are present. The new munition, called the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, can accurately target the enemy while avoiding everyone else, and it weighs so little — again, about a third of what Hellfire does — that one helicopter can attack numerous targets in a single flight. Marine Corps helicopters have successfully employed the smart rockets many times in Afghanistan.
Because it is a lightweight, low-cost system, the weapon can be used flexibly on many different airframes, from fixed-wing aircraft to manned helicopters to unmanned drones. The ten-pound high-explosive warhead is lethal against many types of targets when delivered with the accuracy the guidance package affords. It also can be employed successfully in a variety of different ways, with the attacking aircraft, other aircraft, or troops on the ground providing the laser illumination of the target that the weapon homes in on. It only takes about three seconds after the system leaves its launch tube to pop out winglets with miniature sensors that can detect the illumination and direct the weapon accurately to its target. Once that split-second sequence unfolds, each Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System has an 80% probability of hitting within two yards of the illumination’s center at ranges up to three miles.
The new munition is so simple that it requires no modifications to the host aircraft and no special training of the aircraft’s pilot. And yet it is so lethal that it can be employed in place of the Hellfire against most targets, from air-defense sites to watercraft to lightly armored troop carriers. Hellfire will still be needed to deal with the hardest targets, but by purchasing more modified Hydras and fewer Hellfires, the military could save hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming decades. Which raises the obvious question of why the Army isn’t buying the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System when the Marine Corps is. After all, the Army funded development of the system in the first place. So why isn’t the service taking advantage of this opportunity to meet warfighting needs more cheaply?