Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Field Guide to Flying Death: Rockets and Missiles on the Apache Helicopter

Apache Longbow Helicopter 38 rockets and eight Hellfire Missiles under its stub wings.

Death flies in many forms. Two weapons very often confused are rockets and missiles. In the broadest terms, missiles follow a guidance system to their target. Rockets are pointed at the target, fired and follow a ballistic path, gravity and wind resistance, to the target.

A missile is a guided rocket: a rocket is an unguided missile. 

The difference is similar to the difference between smart bombs and dumb bombs.  When released from an aircraft, smart bombs fall to their target but correct their course. Dumb bombs fall and hit wherever their ballistic path takes them. 

A good example o the difference between rockets and missiles is the basic load of the Apache attack helicopter. In all of its various models, the Apache carries both rockets and missiles.  The standard load is 38 rockets, 19 per pod on each side of the aircraft, and eight Hellfire missiles. 

Four Hellfire Missiles and a fully-loaded rocket pod. 

I watched Apaches fire salvos of Hydra 70mm rockets. The pilots point the aircraft at the target and release pairs of rockets, one from each pod, at the target.  The rockets blast from their tube to a speed nearly a half-mile a second, then fly unpowered up to five miles to their target. 

Hellfire missiles were originally designed as tank-buster missiles. They have a dual warhead in the nose with an armor-piercing shaped charge. When fired, it blazes to about 1,000 mph then flies up to five miles locked on the target. If the target moves, the guidance system steers the missile to the target. 

So why would fire rockets when missiles will track a moving target? Cost.  An Apache helicopter with a full load of 38 rockets and eight missiles has a million dollars in munitions hanging on its pylons: $900,000 worth of Hellire missiles at $115,000 each and $100,000 in rockets costing $2,800 each.  A full load of 38 rockets costs less than just one Hellfire missile. 

Rockets are dumb, missiles are smart, but if either one hits, the target is destroyed. 

Everything That Flies is Ballistic

Every flying object from a football to a Saturn V rocket follows a ballistic path through the air as soon as the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand or the rocket burns all of its fuel.  Rockets, missiles, bombs, bullets, and every sort of ball follows a ballistic path once it is thrown, fired, kicked, hit or launched. 

For Americans, the path followed by a long pass in a football game is a beautiful example of a ballistic path.  The thrown ball leaves the quarterback’s hands at about thirty degrees and climbs rapidly in a nearly straight path to its maximum height. After it reaches maximum height, the spinning football drops rapidly into the arms of the running receiver.

Rockets, missiles bullets and bombs follow the same path with a higher starting speed.  Until the advent of cruise missiles, the term ballistic missile was redundant.  The fuel burned in seconds and from then on, the missile was on a ballistic path all the way to its target. 

Cruise missiles are jet planes with one high-explosive passenger in Seat 1A.


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