Army tests safer warhead

A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires a rocket equipped with an area effect warhead designed to replace cluster munitions in a test conducted April 3, 2014, at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (U.S. Army photo by Daniel Lara)

A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System fires a rocket equipped with an area effect warhead designed to replace cluster munitions in a test conducted April 3, 2014, at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (U.S. Army photo by Daniel Lara)

By John Andrew Hamilton, ATEC Public Affairs

A guided rocket test conducted at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., 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 U.S. military.

Cluster munitions 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 servicemembers working in the area. This danger resulted in the United States banning the export of cluster munitions to allies and setting limits on their future use.

“At the end of 2018 our inventory is no longer usable, and there are constraints on its use today,” said Col. Gary Stephens, project manager for the Alternative Warheads Program. “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.”

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 about 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,” said Jerry Tyree, director of WSMR’s Materiel Test Directorate. “The guys that are out in the field operating that equipment are really key to making that happen.”

This test, the fifth 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 Soldier needs.

“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, foreign representatives observed the test. 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,” Stephens said. “They all have an area effects requirement and a desire to maintain commonality with the rocket launchers they have in place today.”

Army officials chose WSMR as the location for the test because of its experience with the GMLRS family of systems and 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 the launch of the rockets, and 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.

Alternative Warhead Project officials plan to continue the testing and evaluation process of the system at WSMR later this year.