Air Weapons: Hellfire Spiked In Israel

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November 18, 2016: Israel has completed updating its AH-64 helicopter gunships to use the Israeli Spike NLOS (Non Line-Of-Sight) missile, in addition to the smaller American made Hellfire. Spike NLOS weighs 70kg (155 pounds), about 50 percent more than Hellfire and can be fired at a target the operator cannot see (but someone else, with a laser designator, can see). Spike NLOS is usually fired from helicopters, which also provides the laser designator. A helicopter only has to be about 40 meters (122 feet) high to spot something 25 kilometers away. The Spike NLOS has multiple guidance systems, including a live video feed that allows the pilot to fly the missile into to the target, or use the image of the selected target to have the missile home in by itself (“fire and forget”). The pilot can also have Spike self-destruct or shift to another target. On the downside Spike NLOS is expensive, costing over $250,000 each, about twice what Hellfire costs. Israel, and foreign users, have found Spike NLOS worth the extra cost.

Another reason for enabling the AH-64 to use Spike NLOS is that during the 2014 war with Hamas the U.S. halted shipments of Hellfire missiles because of accusations that Israel had deliberately fired them at civilians. In particular there was an incident where a Hellfire hit a UN run school and the UN protested. Later the UN admitted that they knew Hamas was using the school for military purposes and had kept quiet about until Israel furnished proof.

Israel wanted to avoid any future U.S. threats to halt Hellfire shipments and was also following up on the fact that Spike NLOS has proved a very popular export item. Moreover Spike NLOS, which has been in service for since 2005 is superior to what the U.S. has planned as a Hellfire replacement. Currently this is JAGM, which is to replace BGM-71 TOW, AGM-114 Hellfire and AGM-65 Maverick missiles. To that end, JAGM will have twice the range of Hellfire (16 kilometers, instead of the current eight) and a seeker using three different technologies (radar, heat sensing and laser). The explosives in the nine kg (20 pound) warhead will be less sensitive (and less subject to accidental detonation). JAGM is not expected to be ready for service until the end of the decade assuming it survives development. Meanwhile Spike NLOS is already in service, battle tested and much in demand among American allies.

In service since 1984, the American AGM-114 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 30,000 have been produced so far. These have been the most frequently used American missiles for over a decade, with over 16,000 fired in training or (mostly) combat since 2001. A growing number of these Hellfires are for foreign customers. 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. But Hellfire is beginning to lose market share, not just to larger missiles like Spike NLOS but also smaller ones, like the 70mm laser guided missile that costs a third of what a Hellfire goes for.

 


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