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Mini-Munitions Drawing Big Attention

Jul. 14, 2014 - 07:35AM   |  
By ANDREW CHUTER   |   Comments
Small Weapon, Big Future? The FreeFall Lightweight Modular Missile is shown on a rail. Thales and Textron anticipate a growing market.
Small Weapon, Big Future? The FreeFall Lightweight Modular Missile is shown on a rail. Thales and Textron anticipate a growing market. (Thales)
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LONDON — Could small be the next big thing when it comes to air-launched weapons? Thales UK is betting it will be and has developed a mini precision-guided bomb to grab part of the market.

Thales has partnered with Textron Defense Systems to aim at the US market, and the Belfast, Northern Ireland-based company also has options for a second version of the weapon using parts not constrained by ITAR (international traffic in arms regulations).

The first sight of the weapon, generally known as FreeFall LMM (FFLMM) by Thales Advanced Weapon Systems, but being offered by Textron as the Fury, will be at the Farnborough International Airshow, which opened in the UK July 14.

The mini-bomb has been fitted under the wing of a single-engine Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II and a twin-engined Britten-Norman Defender.

Thales, and others in the same marketplace, also sees big opportunities for armed ISTAR missions on small unmanned air systems, typically machines like AAI’s RQ-7 Shadow.

The LMM in FFLMM stands for lightweight modular missile. The missile was recently purchased by the British Royal Navy to equip its AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat helicopter for surface attack duties.

The bomb and the missile share a number of the same components, including the warhead and control and guidance systems, in order to cut costs and reduce development times.

Ricky Adair, the advanced weapon sales and marketing director at Thales UK, said the proliferation of tactical unmanned air systems and fixed-wing light attack aircraft had “sparked a groundswell of interest globally for very small high-precision munitions.”

That interest is reflected in the number of companies, most of them in the US, developing the small-is-effective approach to weapons capability.

Raytheon with its Pyros, Lockheed Martin with the Shadow Hawk, and ATK with the Hatchet have similar weapons on the stocks.

Mini-missiles such as the 5-pound Spike, developed by the US Navy, and 70mm guided rockets also illustrate the move for very small, low-cost weapons. Thales’ US partner, Textron, is also in the small munitions market with its own products.

“We have two publicly unveiled precision-guided weapons for arming light aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems, the G-CLAW and the BattleHawk,” said Ian Walsh, the senior vice president and general manager at Textron’s Weapon & Sensor Systems business. “Fury fits nicely between those two in terms of size, weight and capabilities.”

Walsh said the munition was not tailored toward any specific US program.

“We are bringing this small precision weapon to meet what we see as future and emerging requirements across a range of platforms and armed services,” he said.

Textron will be the prime contractor for any sales to the US military, Walsh said.

In the US, the funding on the weapon system is 50-50 between the two companies.

“We fund the munition and Textron funds the system,” Adair said.

The Thales executive said US contractor Exelis is also involved in the program, providing weapon release mechanisms.

The British company has been toying with the idea of a small free-fall weapon for several years. It previously looked at including folding wings as one of its early design options before settling on the current configuration.

Thales has already done a series of flight tests with the mini-bomb.

David Beatty, the vice president for advanced weapon systems at Thales UK, said further trials are planned over the coming months.

“The next series of tests will be with a full warhead before we move toward final qualification. That task should be eased as several elements of the system have already been cleared through our LMM work,” he said.

The mini-bomb could be ready for delivery within 12 months, Beatty said.

So exactly how small are we talking about with this new class of weapon?

Thales executives said their weapon is 700mm long, has a diameter of 76mm, weighs 6 kilograms and has a 2-kilogram, dual-effect shaped charge and pre-fragmented blast warhead.

Rival weapons come in at roughly the same weight and dimensions.

The weapon uses a semi-active laser for terminal guidance with the option of GPS midcourse correction and has an operational range of four kilometers when launched at 10,000 feet.

“There’s long been a requirement for weapons in this category but until recently the accuracy needed to achieve the required effects with such a small warhead has not been easy to achieve,” said Doug Barrie, senior air analyst at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

“For this sort of weapon, you need to be talking about one- to two-meter accuracy,” he said. ■


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