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APKWS®: A game-changer for counter-unmanned aircraft system (C-UAS) missions


APKWS 2023: The Future of Precision-Guided Munitions




Have you ever wondered how the U.S. military can strike targets with pinpoint accuracy and minimal collateral damage? One of the key technologies that enable this capability is the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guidance kit that transforms unguided rockets into precision-guided munitions (PGMs). In this article, we will explore what APKWS is, how it works, what are its latest updates, and what are the challenges and opportunities for its future development.




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What is APKWS?




APKWS is a design conversion of Hydra 70 unguided rockets with a laser guidance kit to turn them into PGMs. It is the U.S. government's only program of record for the semi-active, laser-guided 2.75-inch (70 millimeter) rocket. It converts the Hydra 70 unguided rocket into a precision guided munition through the addition of a mid-body guidance unit developed by BAE Systems.


A brief history of APKWS development




The concept of APKWS dates back to the 1990s, when the U.S. Navy initiated a program to develop a low-cost, lightweight, precision-guided rocket system that could bridge the gap between unguided rockets and larger anti-armor munitions. The original APKWS program was canceled in 2005 due to technical difficulties and budget constraints. However, in 2006, the U.S. Marine Corps revived the program and awarded a contract to BAE Systems to develop a new version of APKWS, known as APKWS II. The first flight test of APKWS II was conducted in 2007, and the first operational deployment was in 2012 in Afghanistan. Since then, APKWS has been qualified on numerous U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) platforms, including rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and ground-based platforms.


How does APKWS work?




The APKWS system consists of four main components: the launch platform, the rocket motor, the warhead, and the guidance section. The launch platform can be any existing Hydra 70 launcher or a modified launcher that can accommodate longer rockets. The rocket motor is the same as the Hydra 70 rocket motor, which provides thrust and stabilization for the rocket. The warhead can be any existing Hydra 70 warhead, such as high-explosive or flechette warheads. The guidance section is the key innovation of APKWS, which includes a Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker (DASALS) technology. This system allows a laser seeker to be located in the leading edge of each of the four guidance wings, working in unison as if they were a single seeker. This configuration allows existing warheads from the Hydra 70 system to be used without the need for a laser seeker in the missile nose.


The guidance section also contains an inertial measurement unit (IMU), which provides attitude and velocity information to the guidance computer; a battery, which provides power to the guidance electronics; and an actuator assembly, which controls the movement of the guidance wings. The guidance wings are folded inside the rocket body before launch and deploy after launch to provide lift and control for the rocket. The guidance section is designed to lock onto targets from over 6 kilometers away, supporting survivability and mission success by keeping the launch platform out of the threat range.


What are the advantages of APKWS?




APKWS offers several advantages over other PGMs, such as Hellfire missiles or Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). Some of these advantages are:


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- Cost-effectiveness: APKWS is significantly cheaper than other PGMs, costing around $30,000 per unit, compared to $100,000 for a Hellfire missile or $25,000 for a JDAM. This allows the U.S. military to use APKWS more liberally and efficiently, without wasting expensive munitions on low-value targets. APKWS also reduces the logistics burden and maintenance costs, as it uses existing Hydra 70 rockets and launchers, and does not require special handling or storage. - Accuracy: APKWS has a circular error probable (CEP) of less than 2 meters, meaning that 50% of the rockets will land within 2 meters of the target. This is comparable to other PGMs, such as Hellfire or JDAM, which have a CEP of 1.5 meters and 5 meters, respectively. APKWS also has a high hit probability, as it can track and engage moving or stationary targets in day or night conditions, even in adverse weather or cluttered environments. - Flexibility: APKWS can be used on a variety of platforms and against a variety of targets. It can be launched from rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as UAS and ground-based platforms. It can also engage soft and lightly armored targets, such as vehicles, buildings, bunkers, personnel, or UAS. APKWS can be fired in single-shot or ripple-fire modes, allowing the user to tailor the effects to the mission requirements. APKWS can also be integrated with different warheads, such as high-explosive or flechette warheads, to achieve different lethality effects. - Collateral damage reduction: APKWS minimizes collateral damage by using a smaller warhead and a more precise guidance system than other PGMs. APKWS has a warhead weight of 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms), compared to 20 pounds (9 kilograms) for a Hellfire missile or 500 pounds (227 kilograms) for a JDAM. APKWS also has a smaller blast radius and fragmentation pattern than other PGMs, reducing the risk of harming civilians or friendly forces near the target. What are the latest updates on APKWS?




APKWS has been continuously improved and upgraded since its first operational deployment in 2012. Some of the latest updates on APKWS are:


APKWS upgraded capabilities




In 2020, BAE Systems announced that it had successfully demonstrated an extended-range version of APKWS, which increased the maximum range from 5 kilometers to 8 kilometers. This was achieved by adding a new rocket motor and tail kit to the existing guidance section and warhead. The extended-range version of APKWS is expected to enter production in 2023.


In 2021, BAE Systems also announced that it had successfully tested a new dual-mode seeker for APKWS, which combined laser guidance with inertial navigation system (INS) guidance. This dual-mode seeker enhanced the accuracy and reliability of APKWS by providing an alternative guidance option in case of laser obscuration or jamming. The dual-mode seeker is expected to be available for integration with APKWS in 2023.


APKWS foreign users and sales




APKWS has been approved for sale to several foreign allies and partners of the U.S., including Australia, Canada, Jordan, Lebanon, Netherlands, Poland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey, and United Arab Emirates. In 2020 alone, BAE Systems received orders worth more than $600 million for APKWS from both U.S. and foreign customers. As of June 2021, BAE Systems had delivered more than 40,000 units of APKWS to its customers worldwide.


APKWS counter-UAS application




One of the emerging applications of APKWS is to counter unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which pose a growing threat to military and civilian assets. In 2019, BAE Systems demonstrated that APKWS could successfully engage and destroy small UAS targets in various scenarios. In 2020, BAE Systems also integrated APKWS with its High-Energy Laser Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance (HELIOS) system, which combined laser energy with electro-optical sensors to detect, track, identify, [user and defeat UAS threats.


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