Over the past year, the United States has been involved in multiple transfers of guided missile weaponry to Ukraine. These transfers have included batches of APKWS II guided missiles developed from the Hydra 70 unguided aviation rocket. These versatile missiles find application in both ground-to-ground and ground-to-air munitions systems.
Supply Plans and Timelines:
In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense announced its third package of military-technical assistance for Ukraine since the onset of the Russian Special Operation. This package, valued at approximately $300 million, encompassed various weaponry and equipment.
Notably, it mentioned the transfer of guided missiles with semi-active laser guidance, with specific details regarding the type and quantity of these missiles left undisclosed. However, these descriptions strongly indicated the inclusion of APKWS II (Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System) missiles.
Subsequently, in August 2022, another assistance package, this time totaling nearly $3 billion, was unveiled. This package featured VAMPIRE (Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment) anti-aircraft missile systems from L3Harris and an unspecified quantity of guided missiles equipped with laser seekers, likely APKWS once more. L3Harris later clarified that the delivery would take approximately nine months.
In February 2023, announcing the next batch of guided missiles for these systems coincided with the anniversary of the Russian Special Operation’s commencement. Once again, specific product types and supply volumes remained undisclosed, although reasonable assumptions could be made.
Only in early April did the American leadership approve including ten VAMPIRE anti-aircraft systems in the upcoming package. Considering the timeline and related factors, these were the same systems announced the previous summer. This indicated that L3Harris, on behalf of the Pentagon, had completed manufacturing air defense systems for Ukrainian forces, with the subsequent shipment pending.
The United States had repeatedly pledged to supply APKWS II missiles and compatible land-based missile systems to Ukraine over the past year. However, until recently, it appeared to be more about promises and intentions rather than actual deliveries. The reason behind the Pentagon and White House announcing these transfers long before their execution remains unknown.
Deployment and Application:
APKWS-capable missile systems came into the possession of the Ukrainian government no later than April. Toward the end of that month, the first known video depicting the combat deployment of such equipment surfaced on Ukrainian platforms. This equipment reportedly reached the newly formed 37th Separate Marine Brigade.
The video showcased missile launches from a ground-based launcher, likely mounted on a platform similar to the HMMWV. While the video quality was not exceptional, it hinted at the missiles striking a particular structure and an unknown tower. The exact purpose and results of these strikes remained unclear.
A few days later, in early May, another video emerged, this time featuring a combat vehicle in action, including in a firing position, alongside its ammunition. This video demonstrated missiles striking various targets. While the outcomes of these strikes remained uncertain, it undeniably highlighted the weaponry supplied to Ukrainian forces.
Expectations and Limitations:
It’s evident that these acquired missile systems will continue to serve Ukraine’s military objectives. They are intended for use in ground target attacks and as an air defense system to counter unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Their efficacy in achieving these objectives remains uncertain. However, it’s likely that reports of their performance, whether successful or otherwise, will surface in the near future.
Development and Technical Details:
The development of the APKWS precision weapon system, based on the Hydra 70 unguided aircraft missile, commenced in the early 2000s. While multiple organizations initially participated in the project, the results didn’t meet the expectations of the U.S. ground forces. In the mid-2000s, the program was rebooted as APKWS II, incorporating the lessons learned from previous efforts.
2006 BAE Systems secured the APKWS II contract after a competitive selection process. Subsequently, organizational challenges arose, and in 2008, the program shifted to the oversight of the U.S. Navy. Under naval leadership, the APKWS II rocket was developed, entering service and deployment in 2012. In the following years, the Air Force also adopted these weapons.
The Pentagon is the primary customer for serial APKWS II missiles, with applications on various Air Force and Navy air platforms. Furthermore, the possibility of adapting ground-based launchers, such as VAMPIRE, cannot be ruled out. The aviation version of the system had already been exported to five countries, with additional orders anticipated. Moreover, the U.S. provided APKWS II to Ukraine as part of its support.
The AGR-20 APKWS II missile is derived from the 70mm Hydra 70 unguided rocket through a straightforward conversion process. A control unit is installed between the standard warhead and the Hydra engine, increasing rocket length from 1.06 meters to 1.87 meters while maintaining the same diameter. The guided-missile weighs 15 kg compared to the base sample’s 11-12 kg.
The WGU-59/B control unit is a self-contained device equipped with the necessary electronics and X-shaped rudders that deploy after launch. It employs a semi-active laser seeker consisting of four smaller sensors on the control surfaces rather than a single optical device in the missile’s nose. This arrangement enables the seeker to locate and track targets with precision.
APKWS II retains the standard solid propellant engine from the Hydra 70, allowing it to reach speeds of up to 900-1000 m/s when launched from aircraft at optimal altitudes. This results in a flight range of 10-11 km. However, the range is reduced by half or more when launched from ground platforms. The seeker’s target acquisition range is limited to 5-6 km.
The Hydra 70 base could accommodate various warhead types, and these capabilities have been retained in the APKWS II project. Over the years, the United States produced 70mm warheads with high-explosive fragmentation, cumulative, incendiary, and other charge types.
AGR-20 missiles are compatible with various launchers. Compatibility with aircraft pods for the Hydra on multiple launch rails has been preserved. Arnold Defense developed the LAND-LGR4 transport and launch container for four missiles for ground platforms, necessitating a laser target designator for missile guidance. Support for the transport and launch container and firing control equipment can be mounted on different carriers, starting with the Humvee.
A guided missile derived from the Hydra 70 offers distinct advantages, primarily its simplicity and cost-effectiveness in manufacturing. AGR-20 APKWS II missiles can be created by retrofitting unguided missiles with a control unit, eliminating the need to develop a new engine and warhead specifically for this purpose. This approach also maintains compatibility with existing delivery systems.
The semi-active laser seeker, while relatively simple, ensures precise targeting with minimal deviation. It enables engagement with both stationary and moving targets on the ground or in the air. However, there are inherent limitations, including the missile’s small caliber that restricts engine size and flight range. The range is limited to 5-6 km when fired from a ground platform. Additionally, launching from ground platforms exposes the firing unit to potential enemy countermeasures, such as missile systems or artillery fire.