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US Navy produces smart, cheap 6kg fire+forget missile

Suitcase-size 10km-sniper assassin version, anyone?

By Lewis Page, 12 May 2011

US military boffins have added cheap "fire and forget" autonomous seeker heads to basic, lightweight dumb rockets of a type which can be fired in large numbers. By seriously reducing the size and cost of smart weapons, this development is yet another big step towards changing the way wars are fought.

The project in question is called Low-Cost Imaging Terminal Seeker (LCITS), and has seen various US initiatives feed into efforts by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to add fire-and-forget homing capability to the 2.75-inch/70mm rockets carried by various aircraft.

Such rockets are lightweight weapons, weighing just over 6kg, and thus they can be – and are – carried in large numbers. A single chopper or jet can mount pods containing 76 of them, for instance.

A normal 70mm rocket is unguided, however, which means that many must be fired to obtain a hit. The standard means of using 70mms until now has been to ripple off a whole pod-full at once, with the pilot simply pointing the aircraft at the target (or allowing his point of aim to swing across a target area to be sprayed with rockets).

In recent years there have been efforts to fit 70mm rockets with laser-dot seekers, allowing a single round to strike precisely on a dot shone by a designator. These projects have had varying amounts of success, and such weapons aren't yet in widespread use. In general, for this sort of work, a much heavier 50kg-odd Hellfire missile will be called for at the moment.

Even if laser-guided 70mms were widely available, however, picking off many targets with such a system would be comparatively laborious work. A pilot would have to get his laser dot on the spot, launch a rocket and then hold the laser on while the rocket flew to it. This is especially tricky in the case of moving targets, and limits what the aircraft can do while the missile is in flight.

That's why the new LCITS mini-missiles are interesting. They don't need any laser dot: they home on their targets using infrared imaging. A pilot needs only to mark the target once and squeeze off a 70mm, and he or she is then free to manoeuvre and shoot at more targets.

A single helicopter armed with LCITS 70mms would be able, as the ONR suggests, to cause a frightful slaughter among a "swarm" of attacking speedboats. Normally the chopper crew would be slowed up or even stymied by the need to hold laser dots on targets moving at high speed and probably weaving or jinking unpredictably. There is a "fire and forget" version of Hellfire but it can only be shot from more sophisticated Apache copters mounting the Longbow radar: and an Apache can only carry 16 Hellfires as opposed to 76 LCITS 70mms.

Goodbye swarms, armoured assaults ... sniper rifles?

Small numbers of ordinary US Navy and Marine choppers like the Cobra and the Seahawk will soon, it would seem, be able to wipe out largish swarms on their own in a single pass – so frustrating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, perhaps, who are very fond of swarm tactics. The ONR admit that so far they have only proven single-shot operation for LCITS: further work will be needed to develop a smart fire-control system which can ripple off a pod of 70mms as fast as a machine gun firing, with every shot destroying a "Boghammar" gunboat or similar.

Assassin Brad Pitt having just fired a smart missile at his wife Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith (2005)

Ideal for the assassin in a hurry

US soldiers fire a Javelin missile. Credit: US Army

Not entirely fictional, either

But the step down from 50kg Hellfire to 6kg 70mm for reliable smart weapons – and not just laser ones, but fire-and-forget – is significant stuff. Most armoured vehicles can be knocked out by a 70mm with the right warhead: a single chopper or UAV could now, potentially, stop an armoured battle group dead in its tracks in a matter of seconds.

Away from the battlefield, even heavy Hellfires are already routinely used to assassinate individual human beings: smart 70mms will surely make this sort of thing even easier, the more so as they are fire-and-forget and cope with a moving target more easily.

We aren't just talking about aircraft or drones here, either. Ground troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have already used comparatively heavy 12kg Javelin antitank missiles to pick off individuals or small groups at long range even though a Javelin is expensive and only marginally portable.

In this context, the fact that a single-shot portable laser version of one 70mm type has already been offered for special forces use is quite interesting. Such a weapon, which could break down to suitcase size, could now be locked onto a single target - perhaps just someone walking along - from as much as ten kilometres away and home in to pick them off precisely. This, as the ONR vid above hints, might not require any explosive warhead at all: it would simply make a (very large) hole in the victim's body.

Certainly the day of the suitcase manhunter missile for use by snipers and assassins has come another step closer, just as the day of the tank, the artillery piece, the speedboat swarm (and surface warships which do something other than carrying aircraft, perhaps) has receded another step further into the past. ®

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