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AGM-114 Hellfire

Anti-tank guided missile

Hellfire

The aptly-named AGM-114 Hellfire is one of the most powerful and widespread air-launched ATGM weapons in the world

 
 
Entered service 1985
Armor penetration ~ 800 mm
Range of fire 7 000 - 9 000 m
Missile weight 45.4 - 49 kg
Missile length 1.63 - 1.8 m
Missile diameter 0.18 m
Fin span 0.33 m
Warhead type HEAT, various (see below)
Warhead weight 8 or 9 kg
Guidance Semi active laser of active radar

 

   The US-made AGM-114 Hellfire Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM) is one of the most common and important heliborne weapons of the Western Bloc. Designed to serve as an equalizer against superior numbers of Warsaw Pact tanks at the height of the Cold War, this missile continues to find a place in new missions and battles that were largely discounted in its infancy.

   Development of this weapon began in 1974, as a US Army program. In its conceptual phase, the AGM-114 was known as the "HELFIRE", a portmanteau of "HELicopter launched FIRE and forget". The HELFIRE by 1978 had become a joint program US Marine Corp as well; the Marines had a requirement for essentially the same type of weapon, and Congress directed that they co-develop the HELFIRE. Test firings began later that same year, with operational testing was reportedly completed in 1981, and the AGM-114 achieved initial operational capability with the US Army in 1985.

   At some point before it was approved for production in 1982 the AGM-114 HELFIRE was inevitably renamed the "Hellfire", and like most modern US weapons, its origins are a tangled web of ties between legions of contractors and subcontractors. It was initially a proprietary Rockwell product, but a Martin Marietta seeker head was integrated into the design by the time its live-fire testing began. The motors were all manufactured by Thikliol, but are now ATK products. The primary contractor today for all models except the AGM-114L is Hellfire Systems LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The AGM-114L is currently produced by Longbow LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the Hellfire is essentially a Lockheed product.

   All variants to date, with the exception of the AGM-114L, employ semi-active laser guidance. The missile homes-in on a laser spot produced by a laser designator. The aircraft employing the Hellfire usually have their own laser designator, but the target can be "lased" by another aircraft, a fighting vehicle, personnel with a man-portable designator, and so on. As such, the aircraft launching the missile needs only point it in the right direction and launch it --- for helicopters, this allows them to remain terrain-masked without having to expose themselves to possible detection and/or hostile fire. Another advantage unprecedented in air-launched ATGMs is that multiple missiles can be launched simultaneously at an individual target, greatly increasing the chances of destroying the target. However, the greatest advantage is in the ability to engage multiple targets simultaneously by "ripple fire"; the launching of multiple missiles in tandem at a close group of targets, and then designating one after another as the missiles hit them. For example, a helicopter attacking a platoon of three tanks can launch three missiles a few seconds apart from one another, then move the laser spot from the first target after the first missile hits it to the second target, and so on. This tactic was used to devastating effect in the Persian Gulf War.

   The AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire is unique in the series for employing a milimetric wave ("MMW") active radar homing guidance system, in place of the usual laser seeker head. This missile's distinctive name is a reference to the AH-64D Apache Longbow, whose sensor mast atop its rotor hub has the ability to detect, identify, and engage targets using the Longbow Hellfire. The guidance method differs from anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles however, in that rather than simply homing-in on a coherent radar reflector (which would make attacking a ground target impossible in most conditions, due to ground clutter), the seeker head instead locks onto an object that stands-out in three dimensions from the rest of the terrain. Thus, although the sensor system is radically different, the Longbow Hellfire recognizes and homes-in on its target in much the same manner as electro-optical guided weapons of years past; by image recognition. As a result, this variant is a completely fire and forget munition, requiring no input from the operator aside from cuing the target and launching the missile, which eliminates the need to launch multiple missiles in tandem at one target in order to attack many (as described above).

   With the exception of the AGM-114M and AGM-114N, all "war shot" versions of the Hellfire have shaped charge warheads. Exactly how much armor these warheads penetrate has never officially been disclosed, but has noted to be less than that of the I-TOW missiles. Later models with tandem shaped charge warheads likely have greatly improved armor penetration, in addition to the stated ability to defeat explosive reactive armor.

   The AGM-114M employs an HE-FRAG warhead with an additional incendiary effect. It is made primarily for use against soft targets that shaped charge warheads generally have little effect against, such as troops, light vehicles, watercraft, civilian structures, parked aircraft, and do on. This warhead would also be effective against lightly-armored vehicles, but would have no effect against thickly-armored main battle tanks.

   The AGM-114N goes a step further than the M model, with a thermobaric warhead. Called a "Metal-Augmented Charge" (MAC, for short), the title suggests that this munition uses an oxidized metallic compound (probably powdered Zinc or Aluminum) as the bursting charge; if so, the heat of the detonation would be immense, as well as the blast overpressure. As with the AGM-114M, the N model is intended for use against soft targets, but it would be especially effective against structures and area targets.

   Propulsion is via a Thiokol (now ATK) M120-series rocket motor, employing solid fuel and a single stage. Starting with the AGM-114B, all Hellfires were equipped with smokeless M120 variants. Starting with the AGM-114B, all Hellfires were built with either the M120E1 (developed for the US Army), or the M120A2 (developed for the US Navy; and by extension, the US Marine Corps). The shelf life for the M120 series is approximately 20 years, by which time the missile must have its motor replaced, or be deactivated.

   The Hellfire is most famously associated with the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, but since its introduction has been integrated into a multitude of different launch platforms, including fixed-wing aircraft. It has also been successfully integrated into ground-based and naval launch platforms, though to date none of these have entered production. The problem with the Hellfire in a ground-based application is likely its significant mass and unit cost; a BGM-71C TOW IIA, for example, is half the weight and cost of the AGM-114L Hellfire. A new generation of more compact ATGMs, such as the 9M133 Kornet and FGM-148 Javelin, have further eroded the viability of ground-launched Hellfires. The limitations of the Hellfire for marine use are much simpler, in that it is extremely lacking in range and power compared to missiles such as the AGM-119 Penguin or RGM-84 Harpoon.

   It is also possible for the Hellfire to engage helicopters and slow fixed-wing aircraft, though its guidance, warhead, and flight profile obviously make it less than ideal for this purpose (hence, why combat helicopters are often seen carrying missiles like the AIM-92 Stinger and AIM-9 Sidewinder). The only documented case of the Hellfire shooting-down an aircraft was on May 24th 2001, when an IDF AH-64 Apache shot-down a civilian Cessna 152 intruding into restricted airspace (which unfortunately stemmed from the inexperience of the civilian pilot, rather than hostile intent).

   The combat debut of the Hellfire was during Operation Just Cause in 1989, when US Army AH-64 Apaches engaged Panama Defense Forces (PDF) with this weapon. While the PDF had few armored vehicles, and no main battle tanks, the sizable explosive charge was effective against many structures held by Panamanian troops. The most famous example was the siege on the PDF headquarters building, in which Hellfires gutted said structure.

   By far the most famous employment of the Hellfire was during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which AH-64 Apaches destroyed more than 500 Iraqi tanks using this weapon. Hellfires were also employed by AH-1 Cobras of the US Army and Marine Corps during this conflict, destroying even more armored vehicles. It has continued to be used throughout numerous conflicts since the Persian Gulf War, including the Afghan War, the Iraq War, the Libyan Civil War, the Yemeni Civil War, and the Syrian Civil War.

   The AGM-114 Hellfire's operators are numerous, and include Australia, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Japan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The success and availability of the Hellfire seemingly guarantee that it will proliferate even further.

   As of late 2015, the Hellfire remains in production. The unit cost of current models varies between $65 000 (AGM-114K) to $111 000 (AGM-114L). Older models are less expensive ($25 000 for the AGM-114B), but are no longer in production.

 

Variants

 

   YAGM-114A: Prototype design of the Hellfire missile. The final series differs little from the first production model.

   AGM-114A Hellfire: Original production model, with an M120 motor and an 8 kg unitary shaped charge warhead.

   AGM-114B Hellfire: US Navy version of the AGM-114A, with an M120E1 motor and a Safe/Arming Device (SAD) system.

   AGM-114C Hellfire: US Army version of the AGM-114B, but without a SAD system.

   AGM-114D Hellfire: Improved AGM-114C with a digital autopilot system, replacing the analog system in the previous models. Did not enter service.

   AGM-114E Hellfire: US Navy version of the AGM-114D, with a SAD system added. Did not enter service.

   AGM-114F Interim Hellfire: US Army variant with an improved guided system and tandem HEAT warhead, at the cost of a slight range reduction.

   AGM-114G Interim Hellfire: US Navy version of the AGM-114F, with a SAD system added. Did not enter service.

   AGM-114H Interim Hellfire: Improved AGM-114F with a digital autopilot, replacing the analog autopilot. Did not enter service.

   AGM-114I: Unused designation.

   AGM-114J Hellfire II: Improved AGM-114F, with lightened construction to increase range. Did not enter service.

   AGM-114K Hellfire II: US Navy version of the AGM-114J with a SAD system. Adopted by both the US Army and US Navy.

   AGM-114KBF: AGM-114K with the HE-FRAG warhead from the RBS-70 surface to air missile, for use against soft targets. Did not enter service.

   AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire: Active radar homing model for use on the AH-64D Apache Longbow.

   AGM-114M Hellfire II: AGK-114K fitted with an HE-FRAG/incendiary warhead, for use against soft targets and material targets.

   AGM-114N Hellfire II: AGM-114M with a thermobaric warhead, for use against personnel, watercraft, and structures.

   AGM-114O Hellfire II: Unused designation.

   AGM-114P Hellfire II: AGM-114K modified for use on fixed-wing aircraft.

   AGM-114Q Hellfire II: Practice version of the AGM-114N with an inert warhead.

   AGM-114R Hellfire II: Dual-purpose missile with a HEAT/FRAG warhead, and an improved guidance system.

   AGM-114S Hellfire II: Practice version of the AGM-114K with a spotting warhead.

   AGM-114T Hellfire II: Improved AGM-114R, with an insensitive rocket motor and electromagnetic control actuators.

   M34: Dummy missile for ground handling training. Also designated the DATM-114.

   M36: Captive air training missile, without a motor or warhead. Also designated the CATM-114.

   Brimstone: A variant adapted for use especially on fixed-wing aircraft, the Brimstone entered development as a modified Hellfire, but evolved into an entirely unrelated weapon by the time its design was finalized. Currently used by Saudi Arabia and the UK.

   BGM-114 (hypothetical): Likely designation for surface-launched Hellfire missiles. The Hellfire has frequently been demonstrated in this capacity, but never operationally employed as such.

 

Blacktail

   Article by BLACKTAIL

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Hellfire missile

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Hellfire missile

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