Hellfire Missile

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HELLFIRE (initially named the Helicopter Launched, Fire and Forget Missile) is a short-range, laser- or radar-guided, air-to-ground missile system designed to defeat tanks and other individual targets, while minimizing the exposure of the launch vehicle to enemy fire. It was designed during the 1970s as a multimission, anti-armour, precision attack weapon that would be effective against tanks, bunkers and structures. Advanced development of the missile continued through 1976, when the U.S. Army awarded an engineering contract to Rockwell International[1]. Hellfire Missiles AGM-114 have been manufactured by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Martin Marinetta (a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin[2]) and originally by Rockwell[3]. The missiles are installed on helicopters[4], fixed wing aircraft and drones.

The missiles, sometimes referred to as Boeing AGM-114 Hellfire’s[5], and Hughes AGM-114 Hellfire[6], have been controversial largely due to the Thermobaric variant the AGM-114N.

Thermobaric weapons, or vacuum bombs, were first combat-tested by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and their use by Russia against civilians in Chechnya in the 1990s was condemned worldwide[7]. To kill different targets, the Hellfire missile evolved with High Explosive Anti-Tank, blast/fragmentation and thermobaric warheads. The thermobaric AGM-114N was first used by Marine Whiskey Cobras in Operation Iraqi Freedom to clear out buildings in urban combat[8].

Hellfire AGM-114N (Thermobaric Variation)

Thermobaric Missiles work by firstly a precision strike often laser guided, then an aerosol mist of highly explosive chemicals is released and ignited. Following this there is a secondary explosion and a “pressure wave” [9]. The UK Armed forces have fired over 20 of the Thermobaric missiles in 2009. The Pentagon describe the missile as "designed to produce higher sustained blast pressure in multi-room structures and other confined spaces"[10]. BBC defence correspondent Jonathon Marcus, describes how this “blast pressure” affects people caught its radius:

A huge pressure wave which effectively sucks the air out of the lungs of anyone unfortunate enough to be within range[11].

Human Rights Groups have described the missiles as “brutal”, because they “create a pressure wave that sucks the air out of victims, shreds their internal organs and crushes their bodies”[12].

Describing the weapon in The Times, Michael Evans wrote:

More powerful than conventional high-explosive munitions, the thermobaric warhead is composed of volatile gases or liquids that form an aerosol cloud. Once ignited, the cloud creates a fireball and a huge blast wave. Oxygen is sucked out of the air, causing victims' lungs to collapse and eyeballs to be wrenched from their sockets. Victims are crushed to death, which led to the weapon being likened to a tactical nuclear system without the radiation.[13]

UK Government investigates Thermobaric weapons in 2001

UK interest in thermobaric weaponse was first disclosed by BBC Radio Four's Today Programme on 4 January 2001. According to the Belfast Telegraph:

BBC Radio 4's Today programme claimed that the weapon was already in development by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in Kent and may be in service by 2005. However, a statement given to the programme by the Ministry of Defence suggested that Britain's plans may be less well-advanced. It read: "We are currently investigating the possibility. It is possible that this might involve a thermobaric solution. We would, of course, ensure that this is fully in accordance with international law."
But Today claimed that Major Ian Orr, commander of the Army Urban Warfare Training Team, had assured its reporter that development was already under way at DERA.[14]

The Guardian added more on the view from DERA:

Major Ian Orr, commander of the army's urban warfare training team, said yesterday the plan was to have the weapon available by 2005. "We are looking at two areas, offensive and defensive," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "These things are out there, we've got to acknowledge that."
He added: "The lethality gradient is very abrupt. It is much more effective against structures than conventional high explosive. It can have serious effects on people."[15]

According to an ITN report later the same day as the Today report:

The British Army's been criticised for developing its own version of a controversial hi-tech weapon that could cause huge civilian casualties. It's called a thermobaric bomb - and it acts a bit like a nuclear weapon, destroying people and buildings with a massive wave of heat and pressure. It's already been used - with devastating effect - by the Russian army in Chechnya.[16]

UK Government rename Thermobaric Hellfire AGM-114N missiles as “Enhanced Blast Weapons”

The UK government began using the Hellfire AGM-114N in 2008 because the standard hellfire missiles were proving ineffective[17]. This was a controversial decision due to fears over the legality of using thermobaric munitions and previous assurances that the weapons would not be used. In 2002 then MoD minister Lewis Moonie said: "There are no thermobaric weapons in service with the British Army and we have no plans to procure any."[18]. The decision to use the weapons came after 18 months of consultation over whether the weapons breached international law[19] In order to get round the problem the MOD renamed the weapons as “enhanced blast weapons”, omitting the term thermobaric. The MoD justified this decision by arguing that:

We no longer accept the term thermobaric [for the AGM-114N] as there is no internationally agreed definition,” said an MoD spokesman. “We call it an enhanced blast weapon.[20]

These assertions were made by the MoD in June 2008 despite the fact that manufacturer Lockheed Martin promote and describe the missiles as being thermobaric[21]. Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey accused the government of hypocrisy over the issue. He said:

It is staggering the MoD has added these weapons to Britain's arsenal in cloak-and-dagger secrecy.
Parliament has never assented to their use ... (Prime Minister) Gordon Brown claimed the moral high ground when Britain supported a ban on cluster munitions but leaving a loophole for these weapons casts a different picture on the true position.[22]

UK Military use of Thermobaric (Enhanced Blast) Version 2008-2009

Month Year Number of Times Fired
June 2008 5
July 2008 3
August 2008 3
September 2008 3
October 2008 1
November 2008 2
December 2008 0
January 2009 3
February 2009 4
March 2009 13
April 2009 3
May 2009 3
Total 2008-2009 43


Drones equipped with Hellfire Missiles


‘’US Fed News’’ describes the US military drones equipped with the Hellfire missiles:

The MQ-1 Predator or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle can be operated by a pilot and sensor operator from anywhere in the world and is only 27 feet long. Its wing span is 55.25 and its height 6.9 feet. It is powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder snowmobile engine with 115 horsepower. It is armed with two AGM-114 Hellfire Missiles and equipped with cameras that can detect a heat signature from 25,000 feet with amazing clarity[24].

The US have used Predator drones since 1995[25], they have been deployed over Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Pakistan, Serbia and Yemen[26]. According to a report in ‘’The Times’’:

Leon Panetta, the new CIA director, has hailed the Predator programme as the only realistic and effective tool against the leadership embedded in the borderlands of Pakistan. He said:
"It is very precise, it's very limited in terms of collateral damage and very frankly, it's the only game in town in terms of confronting and trying to disrupt the al-Qaeda leadership," he said in May. The Administration's wish list for next year - 792 Hellfire missiles and 24 Reapers, doubling capacity - points to heavier reliance on drones[27].


On the 4th February 2002 in Khost, Afghanistan, an AGM-114 Hellfire missile was fired from a CIA MQ-1 Predator drone. The missile killed Mir Ahmed, age 30, Jehangir Khan, age 28, and his cousin Daraz Khan, age 31[28]. According to ‘’Kabul Press’’: At a Pentagon briefing, a military spokesman argued that the CIA thought that Mr. Khan might be Usama Bin Laden, even though the latter is much taller than Darez Khan. The spokesman defended the air strike by stating that Darez Khan was acting "al-Qaeda like," a term he refused to explain. Over the next few days a procession of Pentagon officials added their opinions: Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark said: "We're convinced that it was an appropriate target, although we do not know exactly who it was."

General Tommy Franks told ABC News on February 7, 2002, that he expected the identities of the three to prove "interesting."

Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem said that the three were "meeting on a hillside" and then added that they were "not farming up there."

A Pentagon source then told the American news media that the Pentagon is pretty confident the three were "senior al-Qaeda members." The Pentagon announced that a 50-member investigating team was on-site collecting DNA samples and other evidence. The results of that investigation were never disclosed to the public. The Pentagon suddenly imposed a news blackout on all information regarding the killings. Darez Khan's brother Shawol Khan was interviewed and he confirmed that the three were out collecting scrap metal[29].


In December 2009 UPI reported that Israel was now able to fire Hellfire AGM-114 missiles from drones of UAV’s. The stretched and bulked up UAV now used by the Israeli Defence Forces, Hermes 900, is able to carry and remotely fire two AGM-114 Hermes missiles. The Hermes 900 is a variant on the Hermes 450 produced by Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit[30]. The Missile is used by the new Iraqi Air Force[31]. The Hellfire AGM-114 Missile was used by Israel in Gaza during operation cast lead. According to a report on States News Service:

Three paramedics in their mid 20s -- Anas Fadhel Na'im, Yaser Kamal Shbeir, and Raf'at Abd al-'Al -- were killed in the early afternoon of 4 January in Gaza City as they walked through a small field on their way to rescue two wounded men in a nearby orchard. A 12-year-old boy, Omar Ahmad al-Barade'e, who was standing near his home indicating to the paramedic the place where the wounded were, was also killed in the same strike.
Amnesty International went to the scene of the incident with the two ambulance drivers who had accompanied the paramedics and who had witnessed the attack and met the child's distraught mother and found the remains of the missile that killed the three paramedics and the child. The label read "guided missile, surface attack" and the USA is mentioned as the weapon's country of origin.12 This AGM 114 Hellfire missile, usually launched from Apache helicopters, was produced by Hellfire Systems of Orlando,a Lockheed Martin/Boeing joint venture, under a contract with the US Army's Aviation and Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama which uses the number DAAH01-03-C-0106 on its contracts.
Label on the remains of a missile that killed three paramedics and a child. Picture from: Amnesty International

Amnesty International found evidence of missile components, including Hellfire AGM 114, from the air attack on the police cadet parade that took place on 27 December 2008. One of the electrical components had "made in France" written on it[32].


According to a November 2009 Flight International report:

Thales UK is providing interim tactical UAV services for the UK armed forces in Afghanistan using unarmed Hermes 450s leased from Elbit. The Royal Air Force already operates General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs over the country carrying Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II precision-guided bombs and Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles[33].

In July 2009 Flight International described the employment by the RAF of drones equipped with Hellfire AGM-114 Missiles:

The UK Royal Air Force's deployment of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Predator B/Reaper unmanned air vehicles has been a "success story", according to a senior officer from the service's 39 Sqn. Reapers have flown "many thousands of hours" since entering RAF use over Afghanistan in October 2007, and have achieved a high level of reliability while flying daily over the last year, the officer says. Only necessary engineering activities have seen the type grounded, and then only for a "handful of days", the officer told the Shephard UV Europe conference in Newport, Wales on 22 July.
RAF Reapers now carry the same weapons load as the US Air Force's MQ-9s, providing 16h endurance with a combat load of four Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles and two 226kg (500lb) precision-guided bombs."Thanks to 39 Sqn there are fewer 'bad guys' around, I'll leave it at that," the officer says[34].


According to Jane’s Defence Weekly:

Taiwan's legislature is set to release $4.3 million to allow Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology to complete its long-running unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program by 2011; CSIST hopes to develop strike and early warning versions of Chung Shyang III with 800 kg payload and capability to fit with radar and AGM-114 hellfire air-to-surface missiles (M)[35].


Dutch Apache helicopters have launched 225 Hellfire AGM-114 Missiles in Afghanistan[36].


In February 2009 reports indicated that India was in the market for Hellfire114-AGM missiles. According to a report in Jane’s Defence Weekly:

Lockheed Martin is in talks to provide Indian Army with 8,000 to 12,000 AGM-114 Hellfire II modular missile systems for its aerial and ground-based platforms to meet urgent requirements; is negotiating possibility of building missiles locally with state-owned Bharat Electronics Limited and Bharat Dynamics Limited (M)[37].

Hellfire AGM-114R II

In November 2009 Lockheed Martin announced the release of a new Hellfire missile the AGM-114R II. The stated advantages of this missile are that it can hit armour, air defence, caves and maritime. It can also be fired behind an aircraft without it having to turn around[38].

Media Coverage

Print Media

The use of the thermobaric variant of the Hellfire missile has rarely been reported in the press. In the UK there have only been 6 articles describing the weapon and of these 4 are dedicated to explaining the introduction of the missile by the UK armed forces. These articles appeared in The Guardian, The Sunday Star, The Times and The Sunday Times. The other two reports were in The Times and the Independent on Sunday and echoed worldwide media reports in 2002 that modern military equipment would mean that and war with Iraq would be over within one week[39]. With the exception of mentions in the defence trade press the missile has received even less coverage in the worldwide press. In total there have only been 9 articles mentioning the missile in major worldwide press publications. Of these articles 4 appeared describing the use of the missiles by the US in the search for Osama Bin Laden in late 2001 early 2002, those articles appeared in the Washington Times, The Daily News (New York), The New York Times and The Washington Post. In 2002 articles appeared in the New Zealand Herald, The Straits Times of Singapore and the Statesman (India), all arguing that due to modern military equipment such as the thermobaric hellfire missile the war would be over in one week[40]. Of the other two articles, one appeared in the South China Post in 2004 explaining how the munitions worked and one appeared in The New York Times in 2005 and quoted George Bush as saying:

In the coming years, he said, there are going to be some awfully surprised terrorists when the thermobaric Hellfire comes knocking.[41].

Broadcast Media

According to the "ITN SOURCE" web resource the use of thermobaric weapons has received broadcast media coverage on Channel 4, Chennel 5 and ITN. The ITN Source website has the following description:

The British Army's been criticised for developing its own version of a controversial hi-tech weapon that could cause huge civilian casualties. It's called a thermobaric bomb - and it acts a bit like a nuclear weapon, destroying people and buildings with a massive wave of heat and pressure. It's already been used - with devastating effect - by the Russian army in Chechnya.[42]

Channel 4 broadcast a 2007 report into thermobaric weapons and the MOD. According to ITN Source:

After 15 months of heavy fighting in Helmand Province - it has emerged that Britain is soon to deploy a bomb which human rights campaigners say could be banned by International law. The explosives - known as thermobarics - can be launched by soldiers on the ground or by helicopter. The effect on their target is devestating: an intense fireball destroys everything in its range.[43]



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