THE ARMY SOON may begin arming its combat helicopters with an undersized missile that could surgically destroy targets in urban areas without killing or maiming friendly forces or innocent civilians.
All through the counterinsurgency in Iraq during the past three years, military officials have acknowledged that, in most cases, the munitions that fighter jets, bombers and helicopters deliver often are too large and too destructive to be effective in a conflict where the goal is to defeat isolated pockets of entrenched insurgents without striking friendly troops and civilian bystanders.
Even ground-based artillery has limited use, as it delivers devastating firepower and rounds often miss the target.
"You don't want to be imprecise in an urban environment," says Gen. William Wallace, head of the Army Training and Doctrine Command and a former field commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Many of the Army's helicopters hunting insurgents in Iraqi cities carry Hellfire missiles, which can cause "significant collateral damage" if the intended target is a "soft" unarmored vehicle or a small group of individuals huddled inside a building, says Matt Finley, a retired Army artillery officer.
Another option is cannon fire, but that requires helicopters equipped with 30 mm guns to fly close to the ground, and exposes them to surface fire.
So far the Army has lacked an in-between weapon that is less destructive than a 7-inch Hellfire missile but can be precisely guided to the target with a laser pointer, and keeps pilots at a relatively safe standoff range.
"The Army does not have a high-precision, low-collateral, low-cost weapon that it can use against lower value targets," says Steve Barnoske, director for tactical missiles at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.
The proposed solution is an unguided 2.75-inch rocket outfitted with a laser kit. The Army already buys and stockpiles thousands of the 2.75-inch Hydra rockets, and is seeking to equip as many as 73,000 with the laser kits, under a program called "advanced precision kill weapon system," or APKWS. The Navy would purchase 8,000 for Marine Corps helicopters.
The weapons would be compatible with all Army and Marine Corps combat helicopters. The Army has no plans currently to install these rockets on unmanned aircraft.
"A rocket is a very good tool ... to kill a soft-skin vehicle, or to take out one room in a building," says Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Mundt, director of Army aviation. Rockets...