Iraqi Helicopters Are Now Flying With Laser-Guided Rockets
Precision-guided weapons are an improvement over dumb bombs
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In November 2016, Iraqi military helicopters were spotted dropping dumb bombs, raising concerns about inaccurate air strikes that pose a danger to civilians. The next month, some of Baghdad’s pilots started blasting away at the Islamic State with laser-guided rockets.
According to the U.S. Army, Iraqi Bell 407 scout choppers were launching the so-called Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II rockets — aka APKWS II — within days of their delivery in December 2016.
On Oct. 7, 2016, the Pentagon announced it would pay defense contractor BAE Systems almost $620 million to deliver the weapons to both the U.S. military and five American allies, including Iraq.
“We now have a system that will help in keeping my pilots alive, from getting shot at and the aircraft damaged or destroyed,” an unnamed Iraqi officer reportedly told Tom Hoskins, the individual responsible for overseeing aid programs in the Middle East and Central Asia at the Army’s Security Assistance Command.
“I cannot stress enough what the … capability will give our forces and our country,” the official added.
Since Islamic State fighters blitzed into Iraq in 2014, Iraqi aircraft have struggled to provide precise air support for troops on the ground. The country’s small, turboprop AC-208 ground attack planes spent the early months of the conflict busily lobbing Hellfire missiles.
In September 2015, Iraq’s American-supplied F-16 fighter bombers entered combat, dropping laser-guided bombs on at least some occasions. But the bulk of Baghdad’s pilots continued to fly into battle with jets and choppers lugging unguided bombs and rockets, as well as cannons and machine guns.
The imprecise attacks inherently put innocent bystanders at risk. This led to predictable results.
“Though the U.N. recently claimed Iraqi forces have avoided artillery strikes inside Mosul in order to avoid civilian casualties, monitoring of social media accounts used by Iraqi forces show artillery and other ground-based munitions regularly being fired into the city,” the independent monitoring group Airwars reported.
“Iraq’s own air force of F-16s, armed Chinese drones and attack helicopters is also heavily engaged and has reportedly been responsible for civilian deaths.”
But now the APKWS II has entered the fight in Iraq. On Dec. 26, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense released a new video — seen above — showing the head of the country’s air force, Gen. Hamid Al Maliki, personally testing out the new weapons.
The weapons have been a long time coming, even for the Pentagon. As early as 1996, the U.S. Army had expressed an interest in turning old stockpiles of unguided 70-millimeter rockets into precision weapons.
More than a decade later, the U.S. Navy had taken charge of what was then called APKWS II. The Pentagon had successfully tested an early laser-guided rocket kit in the 1970s.
This design, and others that followed, featured a self-contained explosive charge and guidance kit that crews could simply screw into the rockets’ modular motors. But the new project was significantly more complicated.
To try and save money, the Pentagon wanted to be able to stick the guidance system in between the motors and existing warheads. This way, troops could simply add the new gear to standard rockets instead of needing an entirely different weapon.
But this also meant engineers couldn’t put the laser seeker in the nose as in most guided projectiles. The solution was a new screw-on section with separate sensors sitting inside four small wings that would pop out after the rocket left the launch tube.
Technicians had to make sure the gear sent the right information to the guidance computer and back to the tiny moving wings. In 2012, Marine Corps pilots finally took APKWS II rockets into combat, firing them at insurgents in Afghanistan.
By the time Iraq got its first batch, the weapons were "a combat-proven system” that had been demonstrated to be “accurate, reliable, affordable and easy to use,” Hoskins told the Army’s reporters. BAE boasted that the projectiles hit more than 90 percent of targets in tests and combat.
Unfortunately, ease of use doesn’t automatically translate to effective strikes. “While the media’s focus is often on international actions, the Iraq government also carries out a significant number of air strikes using less well trained crews and poorer equipment,” Airwars’ Chris Woods told War Is Boring in an email in November 2016.
As of January 2017, only Baghdad’s Bell 407s could even fire the rockets. Other choppers, such as the country’s Russian-made Mi-24 and Mi-28 gunships and Mi-171 armed transports still carry unguided weapons.
The same goes for many of the Iraqi Air Force’s fighter jets and ground attackers. The American supplied AC-208s and F-16s would be the best candidates to carry the weapons, since they can already carry and launch other laser-guided bombs and missiles.
Regardless of what aircraft carry the rockets, proper training and tactics will be the main factors keeping pilots from hitting civilians. If Iraqi crews aren’t careful, in densely packed cities like Mosul, even the most precise weapons can kill non-combatants.
Ultimately, time will tell whether the new laser-guided rounds actually keep civilians, as well as Iraq’s chopper pilots, safe on the battlefield.