Meet the Hellfire: Earlier this month, the U.S. Army awarded Lockheed Martin a multiple-year contract worth $439 million to produce more Hellfire missiles, alongside Joint-Air-to-Ground missiles. As tensions rise between the U.S. and its top adversaries, China and Russia, the influx of Hellfire missiles will give American troops a competitive edge, according to a program management director at Lockheed.
Since its introduction to service, the AGM-114 Hellfire missile has remained the U.S. military’s weapon of choice for taking out high-value targets. Most notably, the missiles were used in attacks that killed the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Introducing the AGM-114 Hellfire
Like many modern weapons used by the U.S. military, the Hellfire’s conception dates back to the Cold War. In the early 1970s, the Pentagon wanted a helicopter-launched anti-tank missile that could take out the Soviet Union’s armada of main battle tanks. By the mid-1980s, operational testing for the missile was complete, and the Hellfire officially entered service with the military in 1986. The designation Hellfire comes from the missile’s original title HELFIRE or “HELiborne Laser FIRE and Forget Missile.”
While the missile was first developed to be integrated into AH-64 Apache helicopters, the Hellfire is now used by fixed-wing airframes, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground and sea vessels, and land-based sites. Additionally, the Hellfire no longer just targets armored vehicles, but it also take out radars, bunkers, small buildings, communications equipment, and more.
Specs and Capabilities
The Hellfire family of missiles includes the Hellfire II and Longbow Hellfire, in addition to other subset variants. Perhaps the most widely recognized Hellfire variant is the R9X, often referred to as the Ninja missile.
While the traditional Hellfire missile kills through a combination of explosive force and shrapnel projection that is lethal to anyone within a certain radius of the target, the Ninja variant is able to take down a precise target while leaving bystanders positioned within a few feet of the target totally unscathed. As outlined by Sandboxx News, the R9X “saw a sharp uptick in press late in 2019 after it was used twice in less than a week to kill different terrorists in Syria.
The first strike took place on December 3, when an AGM-114R9X was used to specifically engage the passenger seat of a minivan in the Syrian city of Atmeh. The second strike took place somewhere between Afrin and Azaz, once again killing its target without injuring any bystanders.”
Hellfire missiles have been used in numerous American combat operations, including Operation Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and other targeted killings within the War on Terror.
Ukrainian forces have also used the family of missiles against Russian enemies. Over the summer, Sweden sent Ukraine its RBS-12 coastal defense missile system, a derivative of the Hellfire anti-tank missile. Norway also donated roughly 160 Hellfire missiles, launching pads, and guidance units to Ukraine. More Hellfire missile systems may see some action soon in eastern Ukraine.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.