Key point: The F-16 is already a good plane, but it needs a way to deal with drone swarms. Why not use new rockets?
On December 19, 2019 an F-16 Fighting Falcon single-engine jet fighter from the 85th Test & Evaluation Squadron used a single laser-guided rocket (see video here) to down a BQM-167 Skeeter drone over the Gulf of Mexico.
The Skeeter conveniently emulates the profile and performance of a subsonic land-attack cruise missile.A companion article looks at how F-16s are being upgraded with new AN/APG-83 radars that will greatly enhance their effectiveness against small, low-flying targets like cruise missiles and drones.
The venerable F-16 has well-deserved reputation as an affordable higher-performance jet that is due to serve into the mid- century. The new rocket test stays true to the F-16’s low-cost concept by exploring a vastly cheaper way to precisely blast small missiles and drones out of the sky.
Most modern air-to-air missiles are highly sophisticated and expensive weapons that rely on costly infrared or radar seekers. Meanwhile, the basic unguided 70-millimeter Hydra rocket is an ultra-expendable workhorse—designed to be launched in large salvoes at ground targets in the expectation that at least a few will affect the target.
The AGR-20A Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) transforms these pedestrian rockets into precise but cheap laser-guided missiles by adding maneuvering fins and a laser-seeker. As the 32-pound rocket leaps off from its pod at over twice the speed of sounds, its seeker automatically steers it towards a point illuminated by a laser targeter. You can see the system in action here.
The APKWS has seen extensive combat use in the last few years—against ground targets. But could it be adapted for use against aerial targets?
Some laser targeters need to be manually trained on a target, which could be difficult against a flying target, particularly if it engages in evasive maneuvers. However, the F-16 in the test was visibly carrying (and likely employing) a gyrostabilized AN/AQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod, which includes a function that allows its integrated laser targeter to be automatically directed by the jet’s radar.
That should especially synergize nicely with the above-mentioned APG-83 radar upgrade, which gives the F-16 a much improved ability to pick out surface-skimming targets against the inevitable ground clutter.
At $30,000 a pop, an APKWS rocket may not sound cheap—but consider that a long-range AMRAAM missile costs $1.3 million each, and a short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder around a half-million. Those prices make sense when engaging airplanes that cost tens of millions of dollars, but become unsustainable if it ever becomes necessary to battle lots of cheap drones (or cheap-ish cruise missiles) costing considerably less.
Furthermore, an F-16 can reportedly carry fourteen APKWS rockets at once in two seven-shot pods. By comparison, an F-16 will max out its hardpoints with six or eight traditional air-to-air missiles.
To be clear, it’s not yet certain the Air Force will move ahead to operationalize the air-to-ground weapon in the air-to-air role. However, it has explicitly stated it is considering APKWS as anti-drone and cruise missile role..
Nonetheless, there could be a saturation problem when it comes to the APKWS rocket—namely, the F-16’s laser targeter must remain fixed on one target at a time to complete a kill.
However, weapons like cruise missiles or drones may be deployed in salvoes or swarms designed to overwhelm defenses. To counter such saturation effect of swarming missiles or drones and fully take advantage of the greater ‘magazine depth’ of a APKWS-armed F-16, it may be necessary to develop a means to lock onto more than one target at a time.
That might not only require changes to the targeter, but possibly AI assistance to rapidly manage weapons within the short time window a counter-swarm engagement might entail.
But for now, merely the ability to affordably shoot down cheap drones and missiles with a cheap rocket instead of hugely expensive AMARAMS and Sidewinders is a noteworthy achievement, especially given the recent proliferation of deadly drones even in the hands of non-state actors.
In time we’ll see if the Air Force decides that cost advantage is incentive enough to integrate the APKWS alongside its repertoire of more traditional air-to-air weapons.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. This first appeared in 2020.