Air Weapons: Old Reliable

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November 1, 2013: The U.S. has ordered another 2,500 Hellfire II missiles. These have been the most frequently used American missiles for over a decade, with over 15,000 fired in training or (mostly) combat since 2001. A growing number of these orders are for foreign customers. AGM-114 Hellfire missiles cost about $100,000 each, depending on warhead and guidance system options. The U.S. Army is the main user but because of frequent use on larger UAVs, the air force and CIA have become heavy users as well.

Hellfire continues to evolve. The missiles now have the ability to go after targets directly below or behind the aircraft firing it. This solves a particular problem with UAVs because the vidcam on board can spot targets directly below or even behind the aircraft, while the Hellfire was designed to only go after targets in front of it. This Hellfire mod accomplished all this with a multifunction guidance system. Guidance system upgrades have made the missile more accurate against moving targets.

The Hellfire II weighs 48 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. In addition to UAVs, the missile is most commonly used by the AH-64 helicopter gunship. An AH-64 can carry up to 16 Hellfires at once. Hellfire launchers are also available for AH-1W, AH–1Z attack helicopters, MH-60R and MH-60S naval helicopters, OH-58D/Fs, and Harvest HAWK equipped KC-130J gunships. The heaviest user in the last decade has been UAVs like the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and MQ-9 Reaper.

The missile is popular for use in urban areas because the small warhead (only about a kilogram/2.2 pounds of explosives) reduces civilian casualties. The missile is accurate enough to be sent through a window (okay, you have to be really good, and lucky, to do this) because of its laser guidance. The AGM-114R missiles have a multipurpose warhead that can penetrate armor or have a blast/fragmentation effect for use against non-armored targets and bunkers. The ones fired from UAVs usually need a blast effect.

The latest model, the AGM-114R, contains improvements to the guidance system and a multi-purpose warhead that can be used effectively against armored vehicles, bunkers, or “soft” targets like boats or buildings. Eventually all Hellfires with be the R version, and there are plans to upgrade older missiles with the R model warhead and guidance system.

Smaller missiles are becoming popular because more can be carried and these (like the 70mm guided rockets and Griffin) weapons contain even less explosives. But Hellfire remains the missile with the track record that you can always depend on.

 


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