Air Weapons: The Hellfire Standard

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April 10, 2017: In early 2017 Britain ordered another thousand Hellfire II AGM-114R1/R2 missiles. This is the version with a height of burst sensor for use as an anti-personnel weapon. These will cost $150,000 each and be taken from U.S. stocks so delivery can be immediate. Back in 2013 Britain ordered 500 Hellfire IIs N4/P4 models. This is the one with a thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) warhead that is optimized for destroying structures. Britain has found Hellfire an exceptionally effective counter-terrorism weapon and has been a heavy user.

The Hellfire II weighs 48 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. The Hellfire is fast, travelling at about 450 meters a second, meaning that it can hit a target at maximum range in less than 20 seconds. Hellfire is popular for use in urban areas because the small warhead (with only about a kilogram/2.2 pounds of explosives) reduces casualties among nearby civilian (“collateral damage”). The missile is accurate enough to be sent through a window (OK, you have to be really good, and lucky, to do this) because of its laser guidance. Hellfire is the most frequently used missile during the war on terror and especially in battles with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which frequently uses civilians as human shields. .

In addition to UAVs, Hellfire is most commonly used by the AH-64 helicopter gunship. An AH-64 can carry up to sixteen 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 since 2008 has been UAVs, like the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and MQ-9 Reaper. Britain uses AH-64a and MQ-9s.

Britain also uses its own version of Hellfire, Brimstone, which can be used on jets. The latest version of Brimstone uses its own radar to keep track of the target. The British 55 kg (110 pound) Brimstone was 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, Brimstone was designed to be fired by fast movers (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. This is what made Brimstone so popular during the 2011 operations in Libya.

A major factor in the success of Brimstone is its superior guidance system. In 2008 Britain added a dual-mode (radar and laser) seeker to Brimstone. 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 because the missile was used so frequently. That got the Americans and French interested in using it as a highly effective anti-vehicle weapon for their jets.

 


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