The laser-guided version of the Sagem AASM (armament air-sol modulaire) air-launched “smart” weapon was qualified last month by the French air armaments agency (DGA) at the Cazaux flight-test center, and will soon enter service in France with operational squadrons of Rafale combat aircraft. It is intended primarily for use against mobile targets. Meanwhile, the French air force has revealed details of recent attack missions over Mali when up to 12 INS/GPS-guided versions of the AASM were salvo-fired within one minute against preplanned targets, to achieve maximum surprise. The weapon was previously fired over Afghanistan and Libya.
The AASM is a modular weapon, designated SBU-38 and named Hammer by NATO. The INS/GPS-guided version entered service in 2008, followed by an IR-guided version in 2011. It features a rocket booster that fires automatically to extend the range when required. In theory, there are four warhead-size options from 125 kg to 1,000 kg. But France has ordered only the 250 kg version to date, although the 125-kg version has also been qualified. Sagem hopes to export the weapon, notably to India in connection with the Dassault Rafale deal that is still in negotiation.
Following three developmental firings in 2010-11, three qualification firings were conducted last year, one against a fixed ground target from high altitude, another from medium altitude against a small vessel at sea and a third from medium altitude against a moving vehicle. The last “was a representative close-air support [CAS] mission,” according to Mathieu Chuiton, a DGA flight-test engineer. He described how the weapon was released from the Rafale that also designated the 90-degree off-axis target, at 10- to 15-km range. The test was deliberately conducted on a partly cloudy day, with the missile being initially guided toward the target by GPS, while the Rafale descended below the clouds to activate the laser of its Thales Damocles pod.
A Rafale can carry six AASMs, three on each of two underwing pylons. The Mali missions included one in which six AASMs were fired against munitions storage and training camp targets, and another in which two Rafales attacked 12 dispersed targets. The rebel forces “never expected so many of their buildings to be destroyed at once,” said the Rafale squadron commander who briefed journalists during a DGA media tour last week. He and other French air force officers noted that the AASM is more expensive than the GBU-12 laser-guided weapon that is also carried by the Rafale. But the French-designed weapon is more effective, partly thanks to a vertical attack mode that can be selected from the cockpit. The laser-guided version can also be used against targets moving at 80 km/hr–twice the limit of the GBU-12–and it is easier to operate from a single-pilot aircraft, the officers added.