Procurement: Immortal Hellfire

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April 14,2008: Once again, the U.S. Department of Defense will try to develop a replacement for the Hellfire missile. After several years of fighting with Congress and defense contractors, the military was finally able to cancel the earlier JCM (Joint Common Missile) replacement effort. For several years, the many companies who would benefit from the development and manufacture of JCM bought friends in Congress, and each year, the project was kept alive with just enough money ($30-35 million) to keep development barely active. Finally, last year, JCM was cancelled. The new effort will be called JAGM (Joint Air to Ground Missile). Like its predecessor, it will be a replacement for the Hellfire anti-tank missile, as well as the TOW and Maverick.

The 108 pound Hellfire, used by helicopters and UAVs, has been in service since 1985, and over 80,000 have been built. As the JCM design became too expensive, many officers came to believe that the existing Hellfire II and heavier (670 pound) Maverick and SDB (250 pound Small Diameter smart Bomb) covered all the missions the services need to handle. The case against JCM also reminded everyone of the importance of the guidance systems for missiles, and the ease with which missiles can be upgraded with more effective electronics. The basic design of these older missiles is not likely to change any time soon, and any of the main components (structure, rocket motor, controls, warhead, guidance system) can be gradually upgraded. While the idea of having a common air-to-surface anti-tank missile for all the services was attractive, it simply didn't add up in the end. The navy and air force fighters can use the larger Maverick missile, and the Hellfire has gotten a new lease on life via use on small UAVs. JCM, while nice in theory, didn't pan out in practice. That argument would convince a majority of those in Congress, but if you want to keep an unneeded project alive, you don't need a majority. All you need is the attention of a few keep Congresscritters, and their staffers. That can usually be obtained with some generous campaign contributions. The rest, as they say, is business-as-usual.

JAGM will eventually replace current the 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 20 pound warhead will be less sensitive (and less subject to accidental detonation). The Department of Defense is seeking companies to spend 27 months building prototypes, which will then compete to determine who gets the multi-billion dollar contract to build all those new missiles. The military is in no rush. The technology that will make missile range an issue (greater range of sensors on helicopters and aircraft) will not become an issue for another 5-10 years. This time, the military wants it done right, and at a price they can afford. So manufacturers have to compete until they get it right, no matter how long it takes.

 


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