Whatever the political stance taken on the conduct of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, if they are going to be carried out in the same way and to the same degree that they have been for going on three years now, reducing any risk posed to civilians is a must.
Despite the use of the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast 21600 pounds/lb (9800 kilogram/kg), or ‘Mother of All Bombs’ as it was nicknamed by the media, by the US Air Force to attack caves suspected to be used by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the Achin district of eastern Afghanistan on 13th April, most air strikes against the Islamist militia have tended to involve far smaller air-delivered weapons. This weapon was designed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory, with Dynetics as the systems integrator. On a daily basis air strikes are carried out by a coalition of nations under US command organised under the Combined Joint Task Force Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (CJTF-OIR). The raison d’être of CJTF-OIR is to: “militarily defeat (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in the Combined Joint Operations Area (Iraq and Syria) in order to enable whole-of-coalition governmental actions to increase regional stability,” according to the mission’s website.
Since Operation INHERENT RESOLVE commenced on 15th June 2014, both inhabited and unmanned aircraft have been used to support the air campaign. While surveillance is very much part of the mission, the ability to perform effective attacks against ISIS is the ultimate aim. So far as the US is concerned, one of the prime weapons used in this operation is the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided/semi-active radar homing air-to-surface missile family. This is the primary weapon in the 100 pounds/lb to 108lb (45.4 kilogram to 49 kilogram) class used by the US Air Force in this conflict, and also by a number of US allies in the Asia-Pacific notably Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, the Republic of China, the Republic of Korea and Singapore. In terms of offensive USAF operations in the Iraq-Syria theatre, the AGM-114 family is used alongside the Lockheed Martin/Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway-II laser-guided bombs or Boeing GBU-38/B Joint Direct Attack Munition satellite-guided bombs on the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle, a platform often used to carry out strikes, for example, and if a full weapons set is used over one sortie, this comes in at a hefty price. Four AGM-114 weapons can be carried by an MQ-9, and while the exact cost is unknown, it is estimated that the aircraft itself costs in the region of circa $15 million, with each AGM-114 costing around $100,000 according to publicly-available figures.
While the cost of war is never low, there is work being carried out to provide a lower cost precision strike capability for these types of missions, which could benefit users with high defences budgets and high international commitments such as the US, or militaries with lower defence budgets that want a precision attack capability, but which cannot afford more expensive weaponry. Another trend is the offer of alternatives to US-made weapons, which have for some years dominated NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) operations. One way of lowering the cost is to turn a rocket into a more precise weapon by adding a guidance kit. Many services have stores of unguided rockets for use across a whole host of platforms, so retrofitting a weapon that is already available to them with a guidance package is far cheaper than buying a missile that already has this capability. For example, in March 2017, Thales announced that it had been awarded a contract from Airbus Helicopters to integrate its semi-active FZ275 Laser Guided Rocket (LGR) onto the rotorcraft manufacturer’s H-145M light utility helicopter. Thales was previously selected to provide rocket systems for use across the family of helicopters, which are being integrated using Airbus’ HForce weapon management system, which provides rotorcraft with a plug and play weapons capability: “Drawing on experience with the Tiger attack helicopter, Airbus Helicopters has developed an off-the-shelf solution to address customers’ armament needs,” Airbus says about HForce on its website. “Conceived as a plug and play system, HForce’s core hardware is interchangeable from one helicopter to another. Software is specific to each helicopter, as are fixtures for the weapon pods. Armament can be exchanged between helicopters.”
The manufacturer adds that a weapon installation kit with its own dedicated computer can provide any military version of an Airbus Helicopters commercial derivative with a weapons capability. The architecture permits retrofits of any available armament, Airbus adds, which includes the FZ275 rockets being provided by Thales. Once the FZ275 LGR is deployed on the H-145M with a twelve-tube rocket launcher, known as the FZ231, it will be the first armed commercial helicopter of Airbus Helicopters with a laser-guided rocket capability, Thales said in a March statement. Other candidate Airbus Helicopters aircraft for the integration of LGRs include the H-225M medium-lift utility helicopter and H-125M light utility helicopter. Nevertheless, a decision on when this integration will take place will be related to Airbus Helicopters’ market requirements and internal integration programme, a Thales spokesperson told AMR. Testing due to take place under the March contract will be carried out in a number of locations in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, the spokesperson added. For now, this system is just being marketed to the rotary-wing domain, and several proposals have been presented to potential customers, the spokesperson noted. In parallel, qualification of the weapon on different platforms is being evaluated. As the FZ275 uses standard 70mm launchers, the rocket system does not require modifications and enables the use of existing rocket systems subject to the addition of a lens protection kit, Thales says: “With more than 60 years of experience providing rocket systems, Thales’ ammunitions portfolio guarantees the compatibility of Laser Guided Rocket on existing rocket systems,” the firm stated in an official press release: “Through this contract, Thales enlarges its supporting rocket systems integration within platforms and enables Airbus Helicopters to reinforce its vast weapon portfolio on armed helicopters,” the press release continued.
Another similar offering is BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), which converts the same-sized rocket into a precision-guided weapon. BAE Systems has been proactive in its marketing of the APKWS, having tested it on a number of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, including an unmanned system in the latter category. In 2015, it was tested from Airbus Helicopters’ EC-665ARH Tiger attack helicopter belonging to the Australian Army’s 16th Aviation Brigade: “The Australia experience has been interesting,” Rachel Guill, programme director for precision guidance solutions at BAE, told AMR. “(W)hen the Australian Army called on us in April 2014, they were looking for us to qualify the APKWS rocket on the Tiger platform … This presented us with the first opportunity to integrate APKWS with a foreign rocket, launcher and platform. Based on our system’s modularity and ease of integration, we were able to successfully demonstrate over the course of just four months, ultimately going a perfect 29 for 29 over air and ground tests.” The APKWS has not yet been contracted for use on the EC-665ARH, but Ms. Guill says that the company has: “seen additional interest from Australia and discussions are ongoing.” The company has proven the system on in excess of 14 fixed and rotary wing platforms, Ms. Guill noted, including platforms that are well represented in the Asia-Pacific region. This includes the Bell Helicopter AH-1 family, Sikorsky MH-60R/S and Boeing AH-64D rotorcraft, and the General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 family fighter: “The bottom line is that our APKWS rocket is highly versatile and as we’ve proven several times, it can be integrated on fast jets and rotary wing aircraft and virtually anything in between,” she said.
In addition to manned aircraft, the system has also been tested from a Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned helicopter, which is used in the Asia-Pacific by the US Navy to support its deployments there: “While we can’t discuss the specifics, what we can say is that we are seeing tremendous demand for our APKWS rocket from this region,” Ms. Guill added, noting that the first indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract from the US government was awarded in October 2016, will facilitate a near-tripling of production output on the weapon, and will cover sales to the Asia-Pacific as well as other regions: “To give an example of the ongoing demand without referencing specific countries…in October (2016), we announced a new three-year (circa) $600 million contract that will allow us to greatly increase production levels to meet the increased US government and international demand,” Ms. Guill said: “In addition, our new facility that will allow us to manufacture 10,000 to 20,000 units per year, (and)…we can also say (that) currently we have requests from over a dozen countries looking to acquire units. The Asia-Pacific region is well represented in that demand.”
Following the signing of the October 2016 contract, a $130 million first order was made shortly after, and Ms. Guill noted that while delivery dates are sensitive, the company can confirm it has delivered units against that order, and “in fact, delivered ahead of schedule.” The company could not talk to any planned or ongoing testing, “but due to the nature of our ‘plug and play’, easy to adapt system, we continue to expand into new mission spaces and additional platforms.”
One company providing competition to US-made weaponry is European armament manufacturer MBDA. It has seen successes in its domestic markets that include France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, but is also pitching further afield, with the Asia-Pacific being the second largest export market after the Middle East: “The cost to integrate air-launched weapons on combat aircraft is generally quite high, hence, instead of facing a direct competition from US made weapons, the rule of the game is more ‘how European missiles can make European aircraft more capable than their US competitors’,” an MBDA spokesperson told AMR. The spokesperson said that the company’s beyond visual range air-to-air Meteor missile is a particular “game-changer” because of its ramjet engine, which provides a “no escape zone” three times larger than its competitors. This feature has created interest among export countries looking to acquire one of the three fighters it is integrated on, namely the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale fighter families. He added that weapons such as the SCALP/Storm Shadow and Taurus satellite/terrain profile matching guided air-to-surface missiles: “are also setting the standards for deep strike in many countries.”
Providing alternatives to customers that have typically operated US weaponry is another area in which MBDA is progressing. Its Brimstone active-radar homing/laser guided air-to-ground missile has been selected as the weapon of choice for the Royal Air Force’s Protector programme that will see the service operate General Atomics’ Predator B to replace its ten-strong fleet of MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Brimstone will replace the AGM-114 family missiles that are integrated on the MQ-9. The UK Army Air Corps could also use Brimstone on its future AgustaWestland/Boeing Apache AH Mk.1 gunship fleet, having demonstrated the ability for it to be integrated and dropped from the Boeing AH-64E Guardian variant currently being acquired by the US Army, during testing that took place in 2016, which will help promote the benefits of integrating the weapon on the UK’s future AH-64E fleet. Boeing won a contract to supply 50 AH-64E aircraft to the British Army in July 2016 with an expected service entry of 2022 for aircraft, according to media reports. MBDA’s Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) will also be the first British missile (MBDA is part-owned by BAE Systems) to enter service on the Lockheed F-35A/B/C Lightning-II fighter, and live firings have taken place, marking the first non-US built weapon to be dropped from the type. ASRAAM is being certified for use on the fighter in line with the UK’s acquisition of the weapon for use on its F-35Bs, and “more than one” firing has taken place to date, Dave Armstrong, managing director of MBDA UK, told reporters in London on 15th March: “We are pleased to announced that ASRAAM has been fired off the F-35 for the first time,” Mr. Armstrong said: “We’ve carried out more than one (firing) and the results so far have been great.” Testing is being carried out at the US Navy’s Patuxent River airbase in Maryland and the US Air Force’s Edwards airbase in California, and so far, flight trials and air-launched firings have taken place, although Mr. Armstrong noted that only limited information on the trials could be revealed at this point.
Integration of MBDA’s Meteor ARH-guided air-to-air missile and SPEAR (Selective Precision Effects At Range) air-to-surface missile integration is also planned for the F-35B, which will further MBDA’s, and UK industry’s, presence on the type: “(The) Meteor missile has been assessed as compatible with all F-35 variants and is (a) low risk for integration, and MBDA is working with the (F-35) programme to finalise the details for integration on the Block-4 version of the aircraft,” the weapons manufacturer told AMR. Additionally, the US could be a market for Brimstone, as a study to assess it as an option for the US Navy’s McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18 family fighter “is progressing well”, the company spokesperson said: “The US has a clear capability gap in low collateral precision guided munitions capable of hitting moving targets from fast jets, and Brimstone could fill that gap,” they added. The MBDA spokesperson noted that cooperation between different nations is key to its success, and: “thanks to this legacy, MBDA has a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of cooperation and transfers of technology.” The company considers this as a decisive selling point when answering the requirements of export customers for transfer of technology: “as we understand, better than our competitors, how to do it to the best benefit of both parties,” the spokesperson continued: “Some countries in the world clearly express their ambitions to become active players on the world scene for armaments, and MBDA has with these countries an active strategy of cooperation and alliance with the local industries.” Of note, in 2017 the company signed a partnership with PGZ in Poland and created a joint venture with Larsen and Toubro in India, both of which aimed at covering developments of a range of technologies.
Diversity of Supply
The US has dominated the precision-guided weapons market for sometime, but alternatives in terms of geography and technology are increasingly gaining popularity. While strike missions will inevitably continue to be performed in both the Iraq and Syria theatres, and in support of future warfare, the way this is approached seems negotiable. If the same mission can be carried out at a lower cost, for example, it seems sensible for nations to adopt new technologies that can offer precision-guided countermeasures with less impact on defence budgets. On the other hand, if development of this technology can be internally provided by a country, be it via its own domestic industry or through offset and technology transfer agreements that enable domestic development, there are benefits in terms of ownership and control of this technology. For whatever reason, these new trends are becoming more appealing to customers worldwide, as they look for alternatives to traditional weapon acquisition routes. Ultimately, precision-guided weapons have, and continue to be paramount, for engaging in the responsible elimination of enemy targets, and if a customer can do this in a more beneficial way from and economic and sovereignty standpoint, then this seems the obvious course of action.