Air Force testing laser-guided rockets on A-10s, F-16s

The U.S. Air Force is working to mount the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) to the A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-16 fighter jet, a service official said.

Air Force engineers are experimenting with additional applications the laser-guided precision 2.75-inch folding fin Hydra-70 rocket able to pinpoint targets not suitable for larger Hellfire missiles or small arms fire from the air, said Laura McGowan, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Although APKWS has historically been configured to fire from rotary wing platforms such as the Marine Corps AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, the Air Force is currently test-firing the laser-guided rockets from fixed-wing aircraft such as the A-10 F-16, McGowan said.

“Testing is currently ongoing and will continue through 2013,” she added.

In fact, the Air Force successfully test-fired APKWS rockets from an A-10 for the first time this past Feb. 13, striking within inches of the intended target, according to an Air Force statement.

While the APKWS, designed for maximum precision, has a Circular Error Probable (CEP) of about 2-meters, the round has exceeded this benchmark in testing and come within inches of targets at ranges up to 5 kilometers, according to BAE Systems officials.

The fixed-wing -mounted laser rockets are identified as a second variant of APKWS, Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II, service officials said.

APKWS II does involve some technical modifications above and beyond the original configuration such that the weapon can fire from a faster, higher-altitude fixed-wing platform, said Dave Harrold, product line director, precision guidance solutions, BAE Systems.

“This presents very different environmental challenges. It is one thing to shoot one of these from a rotary wing aircraft that is in a hover and not very far off the ground – and another to fire out of a jet aircraft that is at 10 or 15,000 feet and going 350 knots,” said  Harrold. “There were slight modifications to the control actuation system.  We have learned things from the rocket and its guidance system, and taken that technology to other applications.”

In development since approximately 2005, APKWS adds precision-guidance technology to existing conventional Hydra-70 rockets; the developers of the system added a guidance section in-between the warhead and the rocket-motor, slightly lengthening the rocket.

“The Hydra 70 unguided rocket has a warhead that is screwed into a rocket motor. In essence, we’re taking an unguided rocket and through a plug and play methodology, turning it into a precision rocket,” said Harrold.

Also, instead of having a nose-mounted seeker which is typical for these kinds of munitions, APKWS uses what’s called a Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker, four separate seekers on small wings mounted onto the round and designed for steering the warhead.

The semi-active seekers, configured to provide a 40-degree field of view in order to quickly obtain precise target locations, are engineered to locate the “spot” or target location identified by a laser designator, he explained. The laser designation can come from either the ground or the air, Harrold said.

“With these semi-active seekers, the optics are looking for the energy that is bouncing back off the target that the laser designation has put on. They are receiving the laser energy that is coming back from the target; both the information from those optics along with the information from the on-board IMU [Inertial Measurement Unit] figure out where the target is and then navigate toward that target,” he added.

Overall, the APKWS is engineered to give aircraft crews additional offensive attack options, allowing them to reduce collateral damage with precision accuracy and pinpoint targets not large enough to justify firing a much larger, heavier munitions such as a 100-pound HELLFIRE missile.

“APKWS was always designed to fill the niche between simple unguided rockets like the Hydra 70 and larger weapons like the Hellfire – to give the pilots the ability to have multiple munitions to choose from depending upon the type of target they need to engage. Not everything that gets a Hellfire shot at it, should get a Hellfire shot at it,” Harrold added.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.

    So this is kinda like adding a JDAM kit to a “dumb Bomb”. Hmm. Sounds actually pretty promising. JDAMS have functioned well, I don’t see why this won’t.

    • Pete Mitchell

      JDAMS are GPS guided; they’re saying these are laser guided.


        I wasn’t saying that JDAMs are laser guided or anything like that. I was saying that both the JDAM and this new device are essential add-ons to already functional weapons systems to make them “smarter”.

        • blight_

          At some point they’ll merge Paveway and JDAM…

  • Lance

    Soon we may not need the Avenger cannon on the plane is rockets can be this accurate who knows sounds cool though.


      Doubt it. Rockets aren’t bad, but in the end, just look at ‘Nam. We need to keep the gun. I personally trust the gun more than a rocket if you are attacking the enemy in extreme CAS situations.

    • PolicyWonk

      That cannon has proven itself to be one of the most effective weapons ever devised. And bullets are *real cheap* compared to missiles.

  • Jacob

    If it’s got a guidance system, should it still be called a “rocket”?

  • FormerDirtDart

    “Air Force engineers are experimenting with additional applications the laser-guided precision 2.75-inch folding fin Hydra-70 rocket able to pinpoint targets not suitable for larger Hellfire missiles or small arms fire from the air, said Laura McGowan, an Air Force spokeswoman.”

    I’m sorry, but since when has 20mm and 30mm aviation cannon fire been considered “small arms fire”??

    • pedestrian

      >when has 20mm and 30mm aviation cannon fire been considered “small arms fire”??

      When nailing terrorists with 30mm cannons have become no longer an overkill :-)

    • blight_

      When you pump a Hellfire missile into a small car, or the Israelis use a brick of C4 in a car headrest to kill terrorists, the proportion of accepted killing power applied to a target increases.

  • BajaWarriors

    Bring back the rockets!

    • pedestrian

      I don’t understand the difference between guided rocket and missiles :-)


        Range is the biggest difference.

  • Aardvark

    On the Warthog, laser guided rockets? will be a plus, but keep the GUN.

  • William_C1

    A laser guided version of the larger 5 inch Zuni rocket should be considered.

    • blight_
      • FormerDirtDart

        I was just going to suggest he try googling “laser zuni”



      • blight_

        Not necessarily.
        Zunis are heavier, larger and bigger, and apparently carry a bigger warhead (40 pds vs 20 pd). The MBDA brochure suggests 10+ mile range, the unclassified range of a Hellfire is less.

        I guess if it requires more punch you use a Zuni. Both are laser-guided, except for the one radar-guided version.

        If you need to take out a car, bring a Hydra. If it’s a hut, use a Hellfire. If it’s a house, take a Zuni.

  • justjack

    I always wondered why the Marines didn’t experiment with the A-10 in the close air support role. Put a couple of hinges on the wings and a tail hook and you could get off a short carrier deck and tear up a beach head or go tank and armor hunting back from the beach.
    Great replacement for the A-6

    • ronaldo

      Because the marines believe that they are special and no one elses kit is good enough.

      Obviously they should have jumped all over the A-10, but went with the AV8B instead……which is really a piece of crap.


      Well, I don’t think its that simple, I am afraid. While I agree that the Marines really could have benefitted with this plane (especially considering their role), simply adding a few hinges and whatnot will not make the plane carrier-borne. Like, I don’t think those high engines are well suited for carrier operations.

  • pedestrian

    Cheap solutions, more quantities, and less collateral damage.

  • STemplar

    So how many do you think an AC130 could carry? That could be fun.

  • BlackOwl18E

    The Navy should follow suit and add those to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. They would be very easily compatible.


      Agreed. The Super Hornet is the strike aircraft for the navy (F-35 ain’t near deployment yet) and should be equipped with these.

  • scott

    these things could probably be used to give troops in Afghanistan close air support in the Himalayas,and still cause some destruction

  • blight_

    Waiting for them to build the next A-10 around a giant laser. Pewpewpew, but only in low humidity, low dust, low cloud cover conditions.

  • ajphillips

    All this gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, our boys and girls are doing their best to protect this great country, make sure we fully support these guys. When I lay down at night I feel we are being taken care of. A long way since my time in 1958.

  • M-1911A1

    2.75 APKWS II…………I want to see the 22 cal. version. We need to save money… Remember, 7 shot mag…. We have got to be fair in war………

  • greg

    I should think charged particle cannon should be a better bet…..

  • Curtis

    1st, mount a rocket pod on a vehicle launcher for strykers and Bradleys. It’d be a great way to take out a window sniper from a distance without hosing down the entire house with lead. Very accurate way to deal with confirmed bad vehicles in traffic. A man portable launcher could also be fun, I paint the target, you shoot from a different location.