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.