A guided rocket test conducted at White Sands Missile Range April 3 saw the use of a new warhead designed to maintain military capabilities while reducing the danger of unexploded ordnance.
The new warhead being developed by the Precision Fires Rocket and Missile Systems program’s Alternative Warhead Project is expected to replace the cluster munitions being phased out by the US military. “At the end of 2018 our (existing cluster munitions) inventory is no longer usable, and there are constraints on its use today. The Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS, alternative warhead is the materiel solution replacement to meet that still remaining requirement for an area weapon,” said Col. Gary Stephens, project manager for the Alternative Warheads Program.
Cluster munitions are warheads that are designed to disperse a large number of small grenade-like bomblets over a large area. While highly effective against area targets, all the bomblets don’t always explode, and can remain on the battlefield for some time, posing a risk to civilians or service members working in the area. This danger has resulted in the US banning the export of cluster munitions to allied countries and setting limits on their future use.
To replace cluster munitions, the Army is developing a large airburst fragmentation warhead. Mounting the warhead on a rocket compatible with the widely used GMLRS family of launchers, this new weapon can be accurately guided to a target area where it explodes around 30 feet above the ground, filling the air with hundreds of bullet-like penetrator projectiles. The result can cause considerable damage to a large area, but unlike cluster munitions, leaves behind only the solid metal penetrators and inert rocket fragments.
The test saw the use of the rockets in a truck mounted launcher engage four target areas; the first three built to represent military targets like radar stations and command posts, with a fourth location vacant of any special target structures with the shot focusing on the warheads overall function and reliability. “Our range operations, targets and the target area (personnel) really pulled this mission together under some really adverse conditions, particularly temperature and wind today. The guys that are out in the field operating that equipment are really key to making that happen,” said Jerry Tyree, director of WSMR’s Materiel Test Directorate.
This test, the fifth one in a series of production qualification tests, is expected to allow the warhead to transition to developmental and operational testing, so the system can be further refined and adjustments made to better accommodate the needs of the Soldier. “This is a milestone for the program, the Army, and even the nation in respect to the cluster munitions,” Tyree said.
In addition to the normal group of test and project personnel, this test was also observed by a number of foreign representatives. Military and civilian representatives from five allied countries that use, or are considering the adoption of GMLRS launchers came to observe the test, and get first hand insight into the new warhead system. “The international community being here represents an opportunity for those countries to maintain commonality with the United States Army. They all have an area effects requirement and a desire to maintain commonality with the rocket launchers they have in place today.” Stephens said.
WSMR was chosen as the location for the test due to its extensive experience with the GMLRS family of systems, and its extensive test and support infrastructure. “The capabilities at White Sands are not replicable in the world, so it’s a unique capability that we’ve had to take advantage of,” Stephens said.
WSMR’s support for tests like this includes a small army of engineers, technicians, and other specialists to allow for not only the launch of the rockets, but also the collection of the mountains of data needed to generate the final, accurate evaluation of the systems performance and function. “Bringing all our assets together, our analysts, our test conductors, collecting the video, telemetry, optics, data is a critical part of that. Each one of those provides the data that is required for the operation,” Tyree said.
The Alternative Warhead Project plans to continue the testing and evaluation process of the system at WSMR later this year.