Air Weapons: What America Lost Over Libya


March 26, 2012: Air operations in Libya made it clear that European-made missiles and smart bombs were every bit as good as the American stuff. As a result, the major European arms manufacturers (mainly BAE, EADS, and Finmeccanica) suddenly have billions of dollars in new orders. While some of this business comes from existing customers replacing all the missiles and bombs they used in Libya, a lot of new customers have shown up. These European weapons are now "battle tested" in a highly publicized and successful operation. Many countries are glad to see credible competition for American weapons. Competition means the buyer can negotiate a better deal.

The air campaign over Libya also demonstrated that one European missile, the Brimstone, was unique and superior to anything the U.S. had. Brimstone also demonstrated, once more, that smaller is often better. Smaller missiles and bombs reduce civilian casualties and enable aircraft to carry more weapons (and hit more targets). The star of this category in Libya was the British 55 kg (109 pound) Brimstone. Originally developed as an upgraded version of the American Hellfire, Brimstone ended up as a Hellfire in general shape only. Weighing the same as the Hellfire (48.5 kg/107 pounds), Brimstone was designed to be fired by fighter-bombers, not just (as with Hellfire) from helicopters and UAVs. Aircraft can carry more of these lightweight missiles. These are perfect for small targets, including vehicles that need to be hit, without causing injuries to nearby civilians or friendly troops.

Four years ago Britain added a dual-mode (radar and laser) seeker to its Brimstone missiles. Originally, Brimstone was to be just an American Hellfire with a British seeker (a miniature, millimeter wave radar) and configured to be launched from jets. Brimstone did that but never got a chance to show how effective it was until Afghanistan and Libya. The performance of Brimstone was particularly impressive in Libya, and that got the Americans and French interested in using it as a highly effective anti-vehicle weapon for their fast-movers (jet fighter-bombers).

Hellfire was first developed three decades ago as a helicopter launched anti-tank weapon but has proved to be very useful against enemy infantry hiding out in buildings or caves. Hellfire later proved to be an ideal weapon for use by larger UAVs. The current version has a range of eight kilometers, while Brimstone has a range of 12 kilometers.

The Brimstone radar seeker makes it easier to use the missile in "fire and forget" mode. The laser seeker is more accurate (to within a meter or two of the aim point). When used on jet fighters, like the Tornado, there is a special launcher that holds three Brimstone missiles (instead of one larger missile). The launcher hangs from one of the Tornado hardpoints. This launcher will also be used on the new Eurofighter. The nine kilogram (20 pound) warhead is sufficient to destroy vehicles, without causing a lot of casualties to nearby civilians. British fighter pilots have become quite good at coming in low and taking out individual vehicles with Brimstone missiles. Carrying a dozen Brimstones, a fighter-bomber can easily use all of them in one sortie, all the while staying out of range of ground fire.





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