Thales on turning dumb rockets into smart missiles
Daniel Emonts, programme manager at Thales Airborne Armament Division, explains to Defence IQ how rotary munitions are evolving
Laser-Guided Rockets: Bridging the gap between high-value missiles and inexpensive rockets
This article originally appeared in the Defence Industry Bulletin Issue #19 October 2018
Defence IQ: Since Korea and Vietnam, unguided 70mm and 2.75-inch rockets have been the bedrock of the rocket market. Millions have been fired from aircraft and helicopters in the last few decades.
However, US manufacturers say a revolution is underway, as relatively cheap unguided weapons are now available for intelligently guided use. How has this technology emerged?
Related: Will the Airbus H145M be Europe’s future light helicopter? Part 1
EMONTS: Technological advancements and miniaturisation mean that we can now incorporate small laser-seekers within unguided munitions system, giving them guided capabilities. As a result, the 70mm FZ275 LGR (guided rocket) closes the gap between long-range high-value air-to-ground-missiles, and the shorter-range guns/cannon and unguided rockets. This enables buyers a full range of inexpensive precision capabilities from a single platform to defeat soft and lightly armoured targets.
FZ275 LGR Guided Rocket. Source: Thales
This development meets many armies’ requirement for precise and reliable ammunition capable of reducing exposure to danger and avoiding collateral damage, while also reducing costs.
Defence IQ: How do you measure the cost-effectiveness of these weapons?
EMONTS: I’ll give you an example. An unguided rocket costs around 1,000 euros to fire. On the other hand, a laser-guided weapon will cost ten times that. However, a heavy Hellfire or PARS-type AGM or ATM can cost around half a million euros.
RELATED: How to win and manage defence contracts
Defence IQ: But the latter comes with a much more devastating punch.
EMONTS: Undoubtedly. However, experience from recent conflicts tells us that 70-millimeter precision munitions offer precision up to six kilometres. In addition, a PARS-3 has a wide array of warheads such as high-explosive, flechette, HEAT, incendiary-fragmentation and tracer, which is enough to neutralise 95 per cent of the targets a multi-role helicopter would encounter in a scout or support mission.
AGM-114 Hellfire. Source: Shutterstock
RELATED: Search and rescue 2018: Helicopter and fixed-wing acquisitions
Defence IQ: I see that your product has folding fins behind the seeker.
EMONTS: That’s the main external difference between the two weapons. The guided rocket – or missile – does not need to spin, like their unguided counterparts which have ‘curved clams’ on the rear end. It needs to maintain a flat flight path. Therefore, we put canards behind the front. The canards maintain the flight trajectory after the engine is spent which takes around one second.
After the engine is spent, it becomes a ballistic munition and utilises gravitational forces to glide onto the target which has been established by the launching-platform via its Wescam sensor or by an external source such as a single soldier or UAV.
‘Laser-guided 70-millimeter precision munitions could take out 95% of targets…’
The gliding mechanism is what distinguishes the system from traditional missiles. However, the main benefit is that the FZ275 LGR is compatible with all current launchers that we have delivered to our customers. There are over 2,000 launch pods in use all over the world, and for each one a guided solution is feasible.
RELATED: Austria vs Airbus: October to seal a messy divorce?
We have also developed lock-on-before-launch functionality, greatly reducing potential waste and unwanted collateral damage. This, in turn, improves survivability, since a helicopter can remain lethal outside of effective MANPADS range.
Ilga-1 MANPAD. Source: Shutterstock
Defence IQ: What does ‘FZ’ stand for?
EMONTS: ‘Forges de Zeebrugge’, which is an old Belgian ammunition factory in Zeebrugge. It was used by the Germans after 1940 and was bombed by the Allies. After the war, it reopened in 1947 and moved to the town of Herstal near Liège. The same site as the world famous FN Herstal, the former Fabrique Nationale that is now part of Herstal Group. After the Cold War, FZ became part of Thompson and, since 2000, we are a 100 per cent subsidiary of Thales, a company present in 56 countries, with 60,000 employees.
Defence IQ: What kind of targets are the system intended for?
EMONTS: All non-armoured and hardened targets – either self-identified or identified by allied forces. This can consist of lightly armed vehicles, GBAD installations, radars, communication sites, parked aircraft or helicopters, small ships or patrol boats, infantry in structures, and even single snipers. At the first H-145M live-firing trial last December at the Swedish FMV flight test centre, all our FZ275 LGRs fired from a 4.5 km distance and hit their targets with deviations of less than a metre.
RELATED: How to win and manage defence contracts
Defence IQ: Who are your major rivals in this market and what sets your product apart?
EMONTS: In the 90s, the US military wanted to purchase a laser-guided rocket. As a result, manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, BAE and Raytheon, have all tried to develop a guidance kit to equip these rockets. Right now, the US Government uses BAE Systems product.
But, most guided-rocket products maintain the American generic standard, which has not evolved since the Vietnam War. Their guidance kit was combined with analogue, wired and mechanical technology for its application.
Today there is strong competition with regards to laser-guided rockets because they exclusively follow the American standard of 2.75 inches. The rocket market is clearly bisected. On one hand, you have the Russian 80mm calibre, on the other hand, the American 2.75-inch calibre.
RELATED: Thales Raytheon Systems signs contract with NATO to strengthen theatre missile defence capabilities
Meanwhile, the French 68mm calibre comprises 5 per cent of global supplies. French industry underwent a revolution and renewed its ageing systems in 2005 with digitalization, removing connectors in the pod. The warhead and guiding system are fitted onto a modern motor, the F4. For this reason, our guided rocket is more efficient than the American solution, which is unsuited at a high-performing vector.
Defence IQ: With regards to the F4 motor, how many rockets can the launcher-pod fire before maintenance required?
EMONTS: Our launchers have no lifetime limit. Our tests guarantee that our tubes will be able to fire beyond 300 rockets. In addition, our launchers are maintainable at 100 per cent, compared to the American standard, which is typically 16 rockets firing per tube. The rockets are discarded when the number of unusable tubes per launcher reaches 30 per cent.
RELATED: How to build a helicopter capability from scratch
For example, a 22 calibre equipped Tiger can fire 6,600 rockets before even the first maintenance. As a result, you can go to a theatre of operations without a launcher in reserve and fire approximately 20,000 with a single combat helicopter.
Defence IQ: Can you explain the composition of your product catalogue?
EMONTS: We have two product categories. One is the 2.75 inch or 70mm, and the other is the IRS (Induction Rocket System), aka the ‘Telson’. Today the system of reference is France. This is the one primarily destined for use on the Eurocopter Tiger.
"The future Induction Laser-Guided Rocket (ILGR) will provide a precision strike capability at a range of up to 10,000 metres"
The future Induction Laser-Guided Rocket (ILGR) will provide a precision strike capability at a range of up to 10,000 metres, beyond the range of most common MANPADS. Thales can support both systems if a customer wants to have something more technically advanced. We use the induction for the ignition and also for the settings of the fuses. It is more reliable due to the lack of electrical cables. In addition, the system cannot be used by a third party if it falls into enemy hands. And because it is lighter, you can have that 22 instead of 19 rockets.
Defence IQ: Is the IRS also 70mm calibre?
EMONTS: No, it is the French 68mm calibre. But it’s obviously such a ‘breakthrough’ in this segment that the US approached Thales to see how it’s used. We are convinced at Thales that we can propose a new technology solution.
Defence IQ: And the US might take over that concept – that technology?
EMONTS: Not the whole weapon system, no. They are interested in the principle. In fact, we have a contract with DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] to evaluate the solution for their future light attack ambitions.
Defence IQ: Regarding ‘Hforce’, the Thales rocket armament – together with FN – and Nexter guns are maintained as a supplier package, as was the case with the Hungarian H-145M. Does this mean a rotary customer who wants weaponisation is also a potential customer?
Three H-145M variants. Source: Georg Mader
EMONTS: Yes, indeed. AIRBUS insists that we are partners, not just a supplier. We engage in common development, and we finance both sides. So both our management decide on which customers we provide for and how far.
Defence IQ: Thank you very much for your time!
Be sure to check out our overview of the H145s different weapon modules
Addendum: This article originally used "Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS)" as an umbrella term for any product that utilises a guidance system to turn an unguided rocket into a precision munition. APKWS® is a BAE Systems product and is the U.S. Government’s only program of record for 2.75-inch laser-guided rockets. More information on the APKWS can be found here.