Smaller and smarter
Breakthroughs point way to miniaturized weapons that never miss
High-tech guidance systems are fitting into increasingly smaller weapons as engineers work to bring them the same pinpoint accuracy once found only in mammoth missiles and hulking bombs.
Miniaturized weapons not only require microscopic electronics, but something to protect them from the crushing G-forces that their launchers create. Raytheon's engineers have made advances on both fronts: The company's laser-guided Pike™ munition is nearly as narrow as some large-caliber ammunition, while the microelectronics in Raytheon's Excalibur artillery shell can withstand bullet-like acceleration – 0 to 760 mph in a fraction of a second.
“We’ve come really far. Now we have, basically, smart munitions you can hold in the palm of your hand,” said Frank Antenori, a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who now manages the Pike program for Raytheon Missile Systems.
Smaller circuit cards and better shock protection for electronics made guidance feasible for precision mortars and artillery shells. Now, miniaturized guided weapons – rockets, artillery, GPS-guided mortars, radar-seeking and anti-armor weapons – are likely to become a major part of ground warfare, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said in a speech at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania.
“We're not too far away from guided .50-caliber rounds,” Work said.
Raytheon's Pike weapon measures 40 mm in diameter, only a half-inch larger than the 25 mm rounds fired by some military machine guns like those in the F-35 fighter jet and the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Soldiers can fire the two-pound, 16.8-inch long Pike munition from a rifle-mounted grenade launcher.
The benefit for ground troops: A lightweight precision weapon that doesn't tether them to a vehicle launcher. Using a laser designator that resembles a pistol, one soldier points at a target such as a light enemy vehicle, while another fires the munition. The goal, as with all precision weaponry, is to save innocent lives.
“When you have the capability to send something a mile and a half and hit within five yards or less of a bad guy, you are achieving what our troops have always wanted – take out a specific target and minimize collateral damage," Antenori said.
The Pike munition contains a rocket engine, which accelerates more slowly than a bullet or artillery shell. But engineers are also building guidance systems that can withstand the more jarring acceleration of those weapons.
Excalibur, a GPS-guided artillery shell, can fly 31 miles (50 kilometers) and strike within 6 1/2 feet (2 meters) of a target. Engineers encased the shell's electronics in a "hockey puck" filled with a putty-like material to protect them during firing.
Raytheon is developing a laser spot tracker that will allow Excalibur to strike moving targets and counter attempts to jam the GPS. A sea-based variant is also under development.
The Pike and Excalibur munitions are part of a growing collection of increasingly small weapons, including:
- Pyros, a 12-pound, 22-inch-long bomb that uses laser and GPS guidance. Pyros launches from small unmanned aircraft, rotary-wing scout platforms, light attack aircraft and special mission aircraft.
- Griffin, a 33-pound, 43-inch-long missile that uses laser and GPS guidance. Its variants fire from platforms such as the C-130 aircraft, rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft , ground launchers and naval ships.
- The Precision Extended Range Munition, a 120 mm GPS-guided mortar designed for the U.S. Marine Corps’ expeditionary forces. The system doubles the range of current ballistic mortars while reducing collateral damage.
Raytheon’s larger guided weapons include the laser-guided AGM-65 Maverick missile, first produced more than 40 years ago; and the Paveway family of laser-guided bombs, which use laser and GPS guidance.
With smaller guided arms, Raytheon is striving to give ground troops the same level of dominance long exercised by U.S. and allied jet fighters, Antenori said.
“No one will fly against an F-15. No other air force in the world will do that because the F-15 will shoot you down well before you even know it’s there,” he said. “We’ve given that capability to the Air Force, and they’ve been enjoying that for a long, long time, but we’ve not given that capability to the infantry until now.”