The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) is essentially an upgrade kit that gives unguided Hydra 70 rockets a laser-guided capability. Able to be integrated with at least 12 different launch platforms, the resultant weapon has a 93-plus per cent strike rate and the twin benefits of low weight and low cost both on its side. That cost factor in part results from the weapon’s Hydra heritage – theoretically, with the same launchers used, all helicopters and aircraft that can fire 2.75 inch rockets can also fire APKWS rockets.
According to manufacturer BAE Systems’ product literature: ‘The APKWS rocket bridges the gap between unguided rockets for area suppression and larger more expensive anti-armor munition. For nearly the same size and weight of existing rockets, an APKWS rocket provides precision guidance with low collateral damage.’
To date, BAE Systems has produced some 5,000 APKWS units. The current per-unit price is in the region of $28,500.
The Hydra 70, of 1940s origin, is a 2.75-inch (70 mm) rocket in such widespread use that it’s the world’s most prolific helicopter weapon. Despite its success, the Hydra 70 is an unguided weapon that lacks the AGM-114 Hellfire missile’s sophistication. In the mid-1990s, the US Army issued a requirement for a new precision weapon, optimised for urban warfare scenarios, that combined the Hydra 70’s and the Hellfire’s best qualities. This weapon had to be a 2.75-inch design, so as to maintain compatibility with existing US military rocket launchers.
The resultant APKWS development programme, with General Dynamics in the lead contractor role, was launched in 2002 but disappointing trial results led to its cancellation in 2005. That same year, however, APKWS was relaunched as APKWS II (‘APWKS’ is still widely-used, even when referring to the 2nd generation design). A BAE Systems-led team competed against Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to win this new Hydra 70 upgrade contract. Ultimately, BAE Systems and its co-bidders won. As a result, the firms were contracted to spend the next three years evolving the APKWS concept. By December 2009, they’d finishing developing it. In March 2011, APKWS flight-testing began.
The first APKWS flight test was followed, in September 2011, by a first-time APKWS helicopter launch. This involved a US Marine Corps Bell UH-1Y Venom (‘Super Huey’) utility helicopter. In all, six APKWS rockets were fired over a variety of ranges, from one-and-a-half kilometres up to five kilometres. Maritime tests, validating the weapon’s anti-ship capability, were staged in February 2012. By October 2012, the APKWS was in full-rate production and customer deliveries had begun. In July 2013, the 2,000th APKWS rolled off the production line. The 3,000th APKWS mark was reached during February 2014. Now, that total is close to being exceeded twice-over.
APKWS Launch Platforms
The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System has so far been launched from eight rotary-wing and three fixed-wing platforms, plus a variety of ground vehicles. Of the rotary-winged types used, four are now fully-qualified APKWS launch platforms – the remainder remain at test status. The Bell UH-1Y Venom, Bell AH-1W SuperCobra, Boeing AH-64 Apache and Sikorsky MH-60 Seahawk all fall into that first category. APKWS rocket-equipped UH-1Y utility and AH-1W attack helicopters gave the weapon its operational debut in March 2012, working in support of ground forces in Afghanistan. The US Navy’s MH-60S and -R model Seahawk multimission maritime helicopters were cleared to operate with APKWS rockets in 2014 and 2015, respectively, while just last October, the US Army moved to purchase APKWSs for its AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, to boost its missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The other four current rotary APKWS launch platforms are the Bell OH-58 Kiowa, Bell 407 GT, Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk and Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout. Carried out in June 2013, the Fire Scout APKWS launch trials were especially significant as they marked the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle had ever fired-out a laser-guided rocket. The preceding May saw the start of fixed-wing APKWS launches involving three combat aircraft types: the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II. Each of these met with success.
The APKWS rocket features unmodified Hydro 70 warhead and motor components but adds BAE Systems’ DASALS (Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker) technology into the mix. The DASALS component sits in between the Hydra 70 warhead and motor. It consists of standard rocket interfaces, wings that act to stabilize the weapon in flight and – mounted on these wings – laser seekers. One laser seeker is positioned on the leading (forward) edge of each wing and, together, they work as a single entity, activating half a second into each APKWS flight. These laser-guided features make APKWS rockets accurate to within less than half-a-metre.
The warhead, motor and DASALS combination extends the Hydra 70 rocket’s length by 18-and-a-half inches (47 centimetres) and ups its weight by nine pounds (4.1 kilograms). The entire weapon is thus 74 inches (1.87 metres) long and weighs 32 pounds (15 kilograms). Its wing span is nine-and-a-half inches (24.3 centimetres) wide but the bulk of it is 2.75 inches (70 millimetres) wide. The APKWS rocket’s maximum speed is Mach 2.9 (2,200 miles per hour – 3,600 kilometres per hour). As a result, it strikes its targets at a peak velocity of 1,000 metres a second. The weapon is effective across a 1,100-to-5,000 metre range. At the minimum range, the time that elapses between launch and target engagement is less than five seconds.
Warhead options comprise the M151, Mk152 and M282 designs. Each of these is a blast-fragmentation warhead that explodes into thousands of pieces on impact.
The US Navy and US Marine Corps are both now APKWS operators, with the US Army soon to join them. International customers have full access to APKWS technology, too, via the well-established US Foreign Military Sales programme. The first such international APKWS customer is Jordan, which was supplied with 110 units in late 2015. It’ll use these to arm its CASA CN-235 gunships.