The test was carried out by the US Air Force Air Combat Command’s 85 Test and Evaluation Squadron Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on December 19, 2019, providing a proof of concept for using rockets queued from an F-16 targeting pod as viable munitions to perform cruise missile defense.
The Advanced precision kill weapon system (APKWS) guidance kit transforms an unguided 2.75-inch (70 millimeter) rocket into a precision-guided rocket, giving warfighters a low-cost surgical strike capability.
The BQM-167 target drone that represented a cruise missile was intercepted over the Gulf of Mexico water range using cueing from the targeting pod carried by the F-16.
On that mission, the aircraft was loaded with two pods each carrying seven guided rockets, plus four AIM-120 AMRAAM air/air missiles.
The test successfully demonstrated shooting a small drone at low altitudes. A single APKWS was required to down the target.
“The test was unprecedented and will shape the future of how the Air Force executes CMD,” said Col. Ryan Messer, commander, 53d Wing.
“This is a prime example of how the 53d Wing is using resources readily available to establish innovative ways that enhance combat capabilities for our combat units.”
Moving forward, the method could be used to defeat multiple targets representing a more realistic cruise missile attack.
“This proof of concept can have implications for homeland defense missions, Combined Defense of the Arabian Gulf, and beyond,” said Messer.
The APKWS rocket redefines precision by hitting the target with pinpoint accuracy and minimal collateral damage – critical for air-to-ground missions when you only have one shot.
The rocket is proven in combat for five years running, and is the U.S. Government’s only program of record for 2.75-inch laser-guided rockets.
Fills the weapons gap
Precision strike capability
There are a number of precision-guided weapons on the market, but few consistently hit their intended target with pinpoint accuracy, while leaving minimal collateral damage.
The DASALS guidance section is designed to lock onto targets from over 3 kilometers away, keeping aircraft and laser designators at a safe distance from threats.
Innovative by design, the APKWS rocket includes advanced DASALS seeker optics located on all four guidance wings.
Once fired, the wings deploy, and the optics lock in, guiding the rocket to the target – delivering accuracy when it matters most.
- Wing slot seals protect optics from adjacent firings, sand, and moisture prior to launch to ensure no damage or debris inhibit the seeker from locking onto targets
- Optics lock onto moving or stationary targets in open or confined areas, supporting a wide variety of missions, and eliminating the possibility of a lost or uncontrolled rocket after launch
- 40-degree instantaneous field of regard enables a broad capture area for the rocket to adjust mid-flight and stay on track to its target
The APKWS rocket exceeds program requirements as the most accurate precision guided weapon in its class. It is utilized by all four U.S. armed forces, with deliveries to numerous allied countries. In combat, the rocket has achieved over a 93 percent hit rate when fired from rotary- and fixed-wing platforms.
- Fired from more than 20 different fixed- and rotary-wing platforms
- U.S. Army has achieved numerous confirmed successful engagements in support of current combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan
- U.S. Air Force has fired hundreds of fixed-wing units in theater to date
- U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy have fired thousands of combined fixed- and rotary-wing shots in total, and hundreds in combat scenarios
The Marine Corps first fielded the laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) 70mm rocket, also known as the AGR-20A, in 2008 and the weapon’s use has since expanded dramatically across the use military on both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
The core of the system is a laser seeker system that slots in between the standard 70mm rocket motor and the warhead, allowing for the rapid conversion of existing Hydra 70 unguided rockets into low-cost precision-guided munitions.
The Air Force did not say what warhead and fuze combination it used during the test.
An inert training warhead might have been enough to turn the rocket into a hit-to-kill air-to-air weapon that would have destroyed the target by physically smashing into it.
A high explosive type combined with a proximity fuze would have been another option. Images that the Air Force released show that the aircraft taking part in the test were carrying rockets with yellow bands at the front, which would point to a live warhead.
The service did say that the F-16C had targeted the drone using an onboard targeting pod. Pictures show that the plane was carrying an AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP) during the test.
The Sniper ATP’s long-range, gyro-stabilized optics and laser designator can be slaved to an aircraft’s radar, but it’s unclear if this was the case during this particular experiment.
The Air Force has been upgrading a number of F-16C/D Vipers, including those in the Air National Guard, with Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), which is an active electronically scanned array type, and just awarded that company a new contract to install these on hundreds of additional F-16 aircraft in the USAF’s stable.
These will allow these aircraft to spot and track targets at greater ranges and with increased precision, especially low flying targets with small radar cross-sections.
The Sniper ATP linked to an AESA radar would significantly enhance the ability of the Viper to engage targets with its laser-guided rockets.
Fighter jets conducting homeland defense missions already fly with Sniper ATPs for long-range identification of aircraft.
The Air Force says that using the AGR-20A in the air-to-air role was the result of an effort to develop a low-cost weapon for aircraft to use in the cruise missile defense role.
This was the number two proposal, out of 76 in total, to come out of an internal Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC) in January 2019. At present, the service trains to use AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and AIM-9X Sidewinders to engage cruise missile threats.
The unit price for the latest AIM-120D variant is just over $1.3 million, according to the Pentagon’s budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year. Older AIM-120Cs still cost around $1.16 million per shot.
Each guidance and control section for the AGR-20A, which, as noted, can be used to convert existing Hydra 70 rocket stocks into laser-guided versions, is just around $25,000.
In addition, the Air Force says that the laser-guided rockets are faster to load than AIM-120s. Above all else, these weapons also give the launching aircraft far greater magazine depth since they get loaded into 7- and 19-shot pods on a single station that would hold a single AIM-120.