The AGM-114 Helicopter Launched Fire-and-Forget missile, better known all over the world as the Hellfire, has become one of the most visible and effective weapons on any battlefield in the last 20 years. Originally designed to deal with thousands of Warsaw Pact tanks flooding across the West German plains during World War III, its designers never envisioned it as becoming the premier terrorist killer of all time. In this role, it has performed beyond expectations since 2001, and continues to sow fear into the hearts of America’s enemies as it obliterates them from the caves of Afghanistan to the deserts of Yemen. This article will delve into the birth of this missile, some of its greatest hits, and its future.
Lockheed-Martin began design for the Hellfire Missile System in 1971 to meet a U.S Army requirement for a helicopter launched fire-and-forget missile for anti-armor operations. Needing the missile to weigh at or about 100 pounds with 18 pounds of it a shaped charge warhead, the factory produced the first variant, the A model, in 1982 to arm its soon-to-be primary carrier, the Hughes AH-64A Apache. From the start, it was clear that if ever there was a match made in heaven between weapon and machine, these two represented it.
The meshing of the two came in how the Apache utilized the Hellfire. Riding on a laser beam painted by the chopper, the missile flew exactly where the beam focused out to 8,000 meters at a speed of 995mph, then plunged downward for impact. The top-attack mode was most effective against armor as the top is where armor was thinnest, and tests revealed little doubt about the carnage it was capable of wreaking.
As the A variant missile achieved operational capability with the first Apache squadrons in 1985, further refinements occurred with a B variant for the Navy featuring an improved safety/arming device for shipboard use, improved seeker and autopilot, plus a reduced-smoke warhead. The Army then adopted this newer variant as the C model, absent the safety/arming enhancement. As the years passed these led to further advances, such as:
- D and E models: featured a digital autopilot for the Army and Navy respectively, but which was never developed.
- F model: known as an ‘interim Hellfire’, this model received revisions to its warhead design, giving it a tandem charge to defeat reactive armor used by tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. It also featured improved guidance and slightly less range, and entered service in 1991.
- G model: naval variant of the F. Not produced.
- H model: featured reprogrammable digital autopilot. Not produced.
1989 began a broad new area of development for the Hellfire which seeked to address shortcomings. This expanded even further following the 1991 Gulf War. Starting out as the Hellfire Optimized Missile System, it became the Hellfire II. This variant featured a larger tandem warhead and allowed users to tune the attack profile for specific targets. Other improvements included a seeker that offered better protection from countermeasures and reprogrammable software. These enhancements came in a lighter package permitting greater range than the F version and came in the following models:
- J model: intended for both the Army and Navy, it never entered production.
- K model: starting delivery in 1994, it became the most widely used variant by the Army and Navy. Another variant for anti-ship use was offered for export.
- L model: though derived from the K, it featured a complete departure from Hellfire laser guidance to millimeter wave radar and was used in conjunction with the Apache Longbow helicopter. It entered service in 1998.
- M model: featured a new blast/fragmentation warhead and improved safety. Intended for the Navy MH-60R Seahawk against semi-hardened and soft targets. It entered service in 2000.
- N model: featured a thermobaric warhead.
- P model: optimized for high altitude use by drones.
- R model: under development for the Army, it features an improved engagement envelope, integrated blast/frag sleeve which gives performance similar to both a shaped charge and blast/fragmentation warhead and variable fusing.
The K, L, and M are the versions still in use today, and first saw service in March 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. These, along with older versions, are some of Hellfire’s more notable achievements:
- 1989 Operation Just Cause: saw its first action in Panama against vehicles and structures.
- 1991 Operation Desert Storm: fired the first shot of the war on January 16, 1991, when an Apache took out an Iraqi radar site.
- 2001-present: weapon of choice for attacks against terrorist leaders. The most well-known are:
With over 60,000 of all models produced, the Hellfire will be around for years to come. Its versatility makes it easily adaptable for changing environments to the point that it has even come off the helicopter and drone launching rails to be mounted on ground vehicles, static launchers and small boats. Of course, as with any weapon with a lengthy career, there have been attempts to replace it in the past, starting with the Joint Common Missile (JCM). This was expected to replace not only Hellfire, but the TOW and Maverick missiles as well. Funding never really took hold though, and it was eventually cancelled and resurrected as the Joint Air to Ground Missile (JAGM) in the late 2000s. This may or may not proceed due to budget cuts and instead may use its components to improve the latest Hellfire and, if successful, may allow a new designation of Hellfire III. It would be a fitting continuance to one of the greatest missile designs in history.