From ammunition to tanks, the United States is among the Western allies that have provided solid military support to Ukraine since Russia launched its “special military operations” against the country more than a year ago.

One of the arms sent to aid the defense strength of the Ukrainian troops at the frontline is the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II, developed by BAE Systems. However, it wasn’t until recently that Ukraine reportedly used the state-of-the-art 70-millimeter laser-guided rocket system to strike back against the advancing Russian army.

A video surfaced online last Thursday showing Ukraine’s new 37th Marine Brigade firing the APKWS vertically from a Humvee-mounted launcher towards Russian targets, including buildings and a tower-mounted sensor, in Kherson Oblast, where most of the significant campaigns take place. In recent months, Ukraine has notably lost a substantial amount of military equipment in its southern region, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), surface-to-air (SAM), armored vehicles, and artillery guns. Russia also claimed several dozen Ukrainian soldier casualties last Friday.

According to Forbes, the successful tower strike highlighted the impressive precision of the laser-guided rocket weapon, as the target is “much smaller” than buildings. Likewise, it underscored the remarkable training of the latest operators, who could use the system effectively.

While the APKWS primarily uses aerial platforms, including helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and UAVs, it works perfectly well on ground vehicles like the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees).

US-made Cutting-edge Weapon System

The development of the APKWS began in 2002 as a joint effort between the US Navy and Marine Crops to provide a low-cost, precision-strike capability against soft and light armored targets. Moreover, both service branches initiated the program in response to the high risk of collateral damage caused by unguided munitions, especially in urban environments.

It wasn’t until 2006 that BAE Systems officially joined the project and started production. It delivered the first high-tech laser-guided rocket system batch to the US military in 2012. Since then, the APKWS has been used in combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. As mentioned earlier, it has also been successfully integrated into various platforms, making it a versatile weapon system.

The APKWS is a hydra 2.75-inch diameter rocket with a semi-active laser seeker that allows it to home in on a laser target designator. The seeker can acquire and track the laser spot, subsequently providing high accuracy and lethality against soft and lightly armored targets. Meanwhile, its rocket carries a warhead that can be selected depending on the target type, including high-explosive, blast-fragmentation, and shaped charge variants. The APKWS has a range of up to 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) and can be fired in single-shot or ripple-fire mode, allowing multiple firing simultaneously.

An F-16C Fighting Falcon test fires an APKWS SBVU rocket near Eglin Air Force Base. (Image source: DVIDS)

Ukraine, however, received the upgraded APKWS II with several feature improvements and technical enhancements over its predecessor. One of the main advancements of the latest version is its new guidance section that can turn dumb rockets into smart projectiles. While the first version used a modified seeker from an air-to-air-missile, limiting its range and accuracy, the APKWS II has a newly designed guidance section incorporating a low-cost imaging infrared laser seeker capable of providing the weapon system a greater accuracy and more extended range.

Furthermore, the APKWS II features advanced capabilities that allow it to track and engage stationary and moving targets, such as vehicles or fast-moving boats, which is a significant improvement compared to its predecessor, which could only effectively hit stationary targets (i.e., buildings, outposts, etc.). Other than that, both weapon systems have almost exact technical specifications and performance, with the upgraded version sharing the same range capacity of up to 5 km (3.1 miles), as well as size and dimensions at a diameter of 2.75 inches and a length of 71 inches. The missile’s weight can vary slightly depending on the warhead type, but both versions’ dimensions remain the same.

APKWS II’s Impact on Ukraine

Initially, experts speculated that Ukrainian forces would mount the APKWS II system on its Mi-17 Hip helicopters when the US announced that it would send millions worth of APKWS packages to Ukraine—to which Germany also pledged additional launchers and rockets shortly after. Some experts also considered the possibility of integrating the laser-guided missiles on surface-launched platforms due to their flexibility, allowing the operators to mount them on vehicles as small as an MRZR buggy. So, it was not surprising when the conflict-affected country used a Humvee and a German-lend pickup truck as its launch platform.

On how it works, Forbes explained that both ground-based vehicles have their respective laser designators but can, nonetheless, steer rockets from laser sparkle coming from either the designators. Meanwhile, Forbes added that if the launcher crew has difficulties using a line of sight to locate targets, a forward observer or drone can do it.

While it is true that the 70mm rocket with a 10-pound warhead is relatively smaller than other munitions in Ukraine’s current arsenal, it remains a powerful weapon that can effectively strike out light-armored vehicles or blast key buildings open, or even disable a tank. Ukrainian troops can also use the APKWS II against Russia’s incessant combat and loitering/kamikaze drone attacks, which seriously threaten Ukraine’s vulnerable artillery and air defense in its southern region.

The APKWS II is not exactly a game-changer like other Western-supplied artillery and weapon systems has done (i.e., Javelins anti-armor systems, High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, M1A1 Abrams tanks, etc.). However, it would still significantly impact the battlefield, prompting Russia to track its movements.

However, to deliver a significant blow to the aggressors and neutralize threats such as the persistent drone activity in Ukrainian airspace, it would be necessary for Ukraine to acquire several dozen more APKWS II systems.