A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon successfully shot down a mock cruise missile over the Gulf of Mexico, marking the first airborne intercept of a cruise missile with a GR-20A Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System.
As missile technology continues to mature, a number of national militaries have made missile defense a high priority; the United States is chief among them. American armed forces maintain a variety of missile defense systems that are often used in an overlapping strategy in order to maximize their effectiveness. This compounding defensive strategy is essential, as fast-moving missiles are a small target against the backdrop of an awfully big world.
Now, the U.S. Air Force has another cost-effective tool in its arsenal for inbound missile intercepts: a relatively inexpensive guided rocket that can be deployed from fighter jets. The GR-20A Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS, is carried in a rocket pod under the belly of the aircraft. Once fired, it’s guided to its target by the F-16’s onboard targeting pod.
The APKWS was originally designed to engage unarmored and lightly armored ground targets in a cost effective manner: as such, it was designed to be added to existing 70-millimeter Hydra 70 rockets without requiring any modification to the rocket body, aircraft or launcher. As a result, this system has seen deployment on a number of different aircraft, and can effectively be used with any platform that can be equipped with a rocket pod and that utilizes laser targeting. In fact, for the pilot, the laser target system works exactly as it does for Hellfire and similar missile platforms, thus making the addition of this weapon system as seamless as possible for operators.
While 70-millimeter Hydra 70 rockets are usually fired in groups or salvos in order to blanket a target in explosives, the APKWS gives the weapon a great deal more accuracy, allowing pilots to use the weapon for near-surgical strikes while reducing the potential for collateral damage. It’s this increased accuracy allotted by the APKWS that makes the weapon capable of engaging fast airborne missiles as well.
An F-16 equipped with two rocket pods could feasibly take down as many as a dozen or more cruise missiles in a single flight, and at a fraction of the cost of using air-to-air missiles. Each rocket fired from the APKWS rings it at around $25,000 — this may sound like a lot until you see that the price tag on a single AMRAAM medium range air-to-air missile is more like $1 million. An F-16 can carry just four AMRAAMs, whereas it could carry as many as 38 rockets in two 19-rocket pods.
Subsonic cruise missiles make for good targets for these guided rockets, thanks to their comparably slower speeds and fairly straight flight paths. The APKWS won’t work on all missiles however: A missile designed to make evasive maneuvers would likely be too much for these rockets to engage. But again, the real goal here isn’t to establish a single point of failure for missile defense, but rather to add to overlapping missile defense systems to greatly increase the chances of interception.