Air Force Tests Laser Guided Rockets In The Air-To-Air Role To Shoot Down Cruise Missiles

A recent test was a proof of concept for using these air-to-ground weapons to knock down cruise missiles, but they could also take out small drones.

An F-16C from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron during a test where it shot down a target drone with a laser-guided 70mm rocket.
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A U.S. Air Force F-16C Viper recently shot down a target drone using a laser-guided 70mm rocket typically used for air-to-ground strikes during a test. The service ostensibly conducted the experiment to determine the weapon's suitability for shooting down incoming cruise missiles, but it could also be useful for destroying small unmanned aircraft, including suicide drones.

The F-16C, assigned to the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron, part of the 53rd Wing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, conducted the test over a range off the coast of the state on Dec. 19, 2019. A BQM-167 target drone served as the simulated cruise missile threat.

"The test was unprecedented and will shape the future of how the Air Force executes CMD [cruise missile defense]," U.S. Air Force Colonel Ryan Messer, commander of the 53rd Wing, said in a statement. “This is a prime example of how the 53rd Wing is using resources readily available to establish innovative ways that enhance combat capabilities for our combat units."

The Marine Corps first fielded the laser-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II (APKWS II) 70mm rocket, also known as the AGR-20A, in 2008 and the weapon's use has since expanded dramatically across the use military on both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The core of the system is a laser seeker system that slots in between the standard 70mm rocket motor and the warhead, allowing for the rapid conversion of existing Hydra 70 unguided rockets into low-cost precision-guided munitions. You can read more about the APKWS II and its use as an air-to-ground weapon in these past War Zone stories.

The Air Force did not say what warhead and fuze combination it used during the test. An inert training warhead might have been enough to turn the rocket into a hit-to-kill air-to-air weapon that would have destroyed the target by physically smashing into it. A high explosive type combined with a proximity fuze would have been another option. Images that the Air Force released show that the aircraft taking part in the test were carrying rockets with yellow bands at the front, which would point to a live warhead.

The service did say that the F-16C had targeted the drone using an onboard targeting pod. Pictures show that the plane was carrying an AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP) during the test. The Sniper ATP's long-range, gyro-stabilized optics and laser designator can be slaved to an aircraft's radar, but it's unclear if this was the case during this particular experiment.

The Air Force has been upgrading a number of F-16C/D Vipers, including those in the Air National Guard, with Northrop Grumman's AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), which is an active electronically scanned array type, and just awarded that company a new contract to install these on hundreds of additional F-16 aircraft in the USAF's stable. These will allow these aircraft to spot and track targets at greater ranges and with increased precision, especially low flying targets with small radar cross-sections. The Sniper ATP linked to an AESA radar would significantly enhance the ability of the Viper to engage targets with its laser-guided rockets. Fighter jets conducting homeland defense missions already fly with Sniper ATPs for long-range identification of aircraft.

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Contractors install an AN/APG-83 SABR radar onto a US Air Force F-16.

The Air Force says that using the AGR-20A in the air-to-air role was the result of an effort to develop a low-cost weapon for aircraft to use in the cruise missile defense role. This was the number two proposal, out of 76 in total, to come out of an internal Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC) in January 2019. At present, the service trains to use AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) and AIM-9X Sidewinders to engage cruise missile threats. 

The unit price for the latest AIM-120D variant is just over $1.3 million, according to the Pentagon's budget request for the 2020 Fiscal Year. Older AIM-120Cs still cost around $1.16 million per shot. Each guidance and control section for the AGR-20A, which, as noted, can be used to convert existing Hydra 70 rocket stocks into laser-guided versions, is just around $25,000. 

In addition, the Air Force says that the laser-guided rockets are faster to load than AIM-120s. Above all else, these weapons also give the launching aircraft far greater magazine depth since they get loaded into 7- and 19-shot pods on a single station that would hold a single AIM-120.

The threat cruise missiles pose to U.S. forces deployed overseas, as well as to the United States itself, has been a growing concern for years now within the U.S. military, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone story. Cruise missile technology is increasingly proliferating, including to non-state militant groups, such as Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, as seen in the video below. The latest U.S. Missile Defense Review, which came out in January 2019, also focused heavily on cruise missile defense. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army also announced it was buying a number of Israeli-made Iron Dome systems ostensibly for this role.

The unprecedented cruise missile and mass suicide drone strikes on oil-related infrastructure in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, which the United States blames on Iran and which the Saudis say were at least Iranian-sponsored, have only underscored how real the threat is and prompted renewed demands for appropriate defenses. Air Force Colonel Messer, the head of the 53rd Wing, made an indirect reference to these strikes, as well as the new U.S. military mission in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East to defend against any future Iranian attacks, when talking about the importance of this recent air-to-air AGR-20A test.

“This proof of concept can have implications for homeland defense missions, Combined Defense of the Arabian Gulf, and beyond,” Messer said in his statement. “I am exceptionally proud of the efforts of the 85th TES [Test and Evaluation Squadron] and the units across the 53rd Wing that made this possible.”

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A picture the Air Force released showing where the target drone came down after the F-16C hit it with an AGR-20A rocket.

Though the Air Force did not specifically mention it, the test also demonstrates how the laser-guided rockets could be employed against small unmanned aircraft, including suicide, drones, as well. American opponents and potential adversaries, again including non-state actors, are increasing employing small drones for intelligence gathering and direct strikes. This has already prompted the development of a number of surface-based counter-drone systems, including various directed energy weapons, such as lasers and high-powered microwaves.

The limitations and costs involved in using AIM-120s and AIM-9Xs, are just as apparent in the counter-drone mission as they are in the counter-cruise missile role. The added magazine depth that the AGR-20A offers could be particularly valuable against mass drone attacks and drone swarms.

It's not clear how close the Air Force may be to fielding the laser-guided rockets as air-to-air weapons operationally or if the service views this as just as a proof of concept or some level of interim solution to its requirements. It's possible that this could just be a stepping stone to a more dedicated 70mm air-to-air design or to using another weapon in a similar fashion. The AGR-20A could have difficulty engaging increasingly advanced cruise missiles that fly at high supersonic or even hypersonic speeds, which might require a faster-flying interceptor, but these aren't the main threat set the rockets would be facing.

Whatever happens, the Air Force has demonstrated that its laser-guided rockets, combat-proven against ground targets, may be just as valuable for knocking down small aerial threats.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com