What will fire the laser-guided rockets donated to Ukraine is still a mystery


The growing stream of US military equipment in Ukraine includes “laser-guided rocket equipment” which is now confirmed to be Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II, or APKWS II. However, it is still unclear what the Ukrainians will fire them from, as they do not have any platforms typically used to fire US-made 70mm rockets.

When the US Army’s plan to send in laser-guided rockets was originally announced, we surmised that one scenario might be that the Department of Defense would draw on its stockpile of 70mm Hydra rockets, equipped with APKWS II kits from BAE Systems, for use on Ukrainian Turkish-made missiles. Bayraktar TB2 UAV.

Another possibility is to mount 70mm rocket pods on Mi-17 Hip helicopters – the United States is sending a group originally acquired for Afghanistan to Ukraine to reinforce the country’s existing fleet. Although helicopters in this case would benefit from being equipped with a laser designator to guide the rockets themselves to their targets, it is also possible to provide targeting via another laser designator, such as one on the ground or in the airs on another plane. A central data bus and rocket-capable computer would also be a key addition to the Hips.

Ukrainian Mi-8/17 Hip type helicopter fitted with Russian-designed rocket pods. (Public domain)

Finally, Ukraine could use laser-guided rockets in a ground or surface launched format. BAE Systems has tested a modular system that could fit vehicles as small as an MRZR buggy, which includes fire control and targeting components, and the rockets themselves enclosed in a small launcher. Ukraine already uses buggies as anti-tank guided missile platforms, so that would make sense. Additionally, mounting them on larger vehicles or even small patrol boats could also be interesting.

APKWS is the only laser-guided 70mm rocket officially in the US inventory and many media and analysts have inferred that it was the ammunition supplied to Ukraine, although the Pentagon has been cryptic for decades. weeks about the “laser-guided rockets” they were talking about. . We inquired about this many times, but never got a clear answer.

“I agree it’s likely APKS II,” said Bryan Clark, principal investigator and director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute think tank. The war zone in an email ahead of the Pentagon’s announcement. “‘Laser-guided rocket’ really only applies to APKWS. APKWS can be launched from barrel launchers like on helicopters or simple rail launchers which could be made locally.”

On May 6, the Pentagon finally confirmed that it was the APKWS and that it was providing $22.6 million worth of guided rockets.

The 13-pound Hydra 70mm unguided rocket was developed decades ago and carried in externally mounted pods on rotorcraft and fixed-wing aircraft. They are less accurate than guided missiles, but can be fired in rapid succession to cover large areas, particularly effective when fired from a hovering helicopter, as the United States regularly did during the war. Vietnam.

APKWS II is the only major US government procurement program for 70 mm (2.75 inch) laser-guided rockets and is therefore the most likely candidate for dispatch to Ukraine. The kit fits between the Hydra’s warhead – which comes in different types – and the engine. It includes laser search devices on each of its four retractable front fins that deploy once the rocket launches. As such, APKWS II turns “dumb rockets” into “smart rockets”.

As previously reported, it is still unclear which launch pads Ukraine might use to deliver them. American rockets are in the size and weight class of what the Bayraktar can carry. The TB2 carries smaller munitions like the MAM-C, a Turkish-made laser-guided missile that weighs just 14 pounds and was developed specifically to be light enough to be used aboard drones and light attack aircraft. Its big brother, the MAM-L, weighs 44 pounds. Both have been used to devastating effect against Russian forces in the current war and other recent conflicts.

Roketsan MAM-L laser-guided missile. Roksetsan

TB2s are already capable of carrying – or are at least supposed to be capable of carrying – Roketsan’s Cirit, which offers roughly the same 70mm laser-guided rocket capability as the APKWS II. But the United States does not own any Cirits and quickly exporting large numbers, especially to politically sensitive Ukraine, is likely a challenge. As such, integrating APKWS on the TB2 is a much more attractive proposition. For soft to lightly armored targets, the APKWS II is a perfect weapon and each Turkish-made drone could theoretically carry several.

Ukrainian Navy TB2 drone. (Ukrainian Navy)

With proper targeting equipment, the APKWS II carried out sniper-type precision strike missions, such as taking out IS fighters hiding in dense cover and through doors and windows .

This capability was proven in 2015, when the upgraded rockets were the primary armament of a pair of refurbished OV-10 light attack aircraft during covert missions in Iraq. The type also provides some standoff distance to engage more heavily defended targets, such as point air defense systems.

The 25-pounder APKWS II has been fired from many aircraft, including just about every model of US attack and utility helicopter, as well as the F-16, A-10, AV-8B and family F/A-18 Hornets. of jets, to name a few. To our knowledge, the weapon has never been fired from a drone, but has been tested from ground vehicles.

Aircraft that fired APKWS II rockets. Ukraine does not currently fly any of them. BAE systems

As for weapons readily available for transfer to Ukraine, the US military has many 70mm rockets and purchases thousands more each year. The military alone plans to purchase 60,000 unguided rockets in fiscal year 2023 alone. BAE Systems, which builds the APKWS II research kit, is equipped to build 25,000 a year and is expanding production, according to its website. It has already delivered 37,000 units in six years of production.

Russia has developed its own laser-guided rockets, in the same vein as the APKWS, but they’re probably not widely used from what we’ve seen in terms of footage of the conflict.

Whichever platform – or platforms – receive the guided rockets, they will be leveraged and their potential for success could generate even more interest from overseas customers than already exists. today.

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