Air Weapons: Cannot Get Enough Hellfire

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December 27, 2015: The United States recently increased production of its AGM-114 Hellfire missile from 500 to 650 a month. Further increases are planned for 2016. The reason for this is the success Hellfire has had in fighting ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant). Hellfire has been continually improved since the 1980s and now can hit moving targets with great precision. Since ISIL tries to stay mobile and dispersed Hellfire has turned out to be the best weapon to fight them with, especially if you want to avoid civilian casualties. It’s not just American demand for Hellfire that is causing the shortage but also the growing list of other users. Currently South Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, France, Italy and Britain have Hellfire on order and they are being told they will have to wait a bit.

Hellfire remains the missile with the track record that you can always depend on and more nations are realizing it. Because of that more recent smaller missiles like Griffin and 70mm guided rockets just never caught on in a big way. In service since 1984, the Hellfire missile has not only proved enormously useful in the war on terror, it has also defeated numerous efforts to replace it with something better. It didn’t help that an improved Hellfire, Hellfire II, appeared in 1994 and over 32,000 have been produced so far. These have been the most frequently used American missiles, with over 18,000 fired in training or (mostly) combat since 2001. Hellfire missiles cost about $100,000 each depending on warhead and guidance system options.

Britain produces a Hellfire variant, called Brimstone which is unique mainly in that it can be fire from jets. This version has become very popular as well. Hellfire was originally designed for use by helicopter gunships against masses of Cold War era Russian tanks. That never happened, except in Kuwait during the 1991 war against Russian tanks owned by Iraq. Hellfire was quite successful in Kuwait. With the end of the Cold War the Hellfire seemed destined for the history books, as just another missile that worked but never distinguished itself. This all changed in 2002 when the CIA first used a Hellfire fired from a Predator UAV to kill a hard-to-find terrorist. The U.S. Air Force wasn’t really interested in this sort of thing and the CIA used its own money and authority to buy Predator UAVs and arm them with Hellfires. It quickly became apparent that the air force was wrong about UAVs and, well, the Hellfire was an army weapon used on helicopters and the air force never considered such a combination of UAV and missile useful for anything. The army soon found that Hellfire was an excellent weapon for supporting troops in urban areas or when going after terrorists anywhere.

 

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