The U.S. military’s replacement for the Hellfire anti-tank missile has entered production, capping off years of development. The Joint Air Ground Missile (JAGM) will arm U.S. Army and Marine Corps attack helicopters, providing a weapon capable of destroying the heaviest tanks from miles away.
The JAGM replaces the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. First fielded in the early 1980s, Hellfire was designed as a heavy tank-killer to destroy Soviet tanks on the Western European battlefield. Just over five feet long, seven inches wide and weighing approximately 100 pounds, Hellfire could kill tanks at ranges of up to five miles. U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopters carry up to sixteen of the missiles at a time. U.S. Marine Cobra attack helicopters also use the Hellfire to attack armored and ground targets, while U.S. Navy MH-60R “Romeo” helicopters carry the Hellfire to attack enemy ships.
The original Hellfire missile was guided to target by a laser designator, either on the helicopter or on the ground. A later version, AGM-114L, was sent to its target by a helicopter-mounted millimetric wave radar. Hellfire was used in both the 1991 Gulf War, 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan, often against non-armored targets such as groups of fighters with rifles or munitions bunkers. As a result, the services developed new Hellfires with warheads better suited to destroying softer, but still dangerous targets.
JAGM combines both target designation systems into a single missile. An attack helicopter with JAGMs could launch a missile using its laser designator and then allow the missile’s millimetric wave sensor to guide itself to target the rest of the way, giving it a “fire and forget” capability. This increases the survivability of the helicopter, which might give itself away by firing and need to take evasive action.
JAGM in many respects is the same Hellfire missile, with the same warhead, motor, and flight control systems as the latest version of the Hellfire, AGM-114R. The warhead, as the U.S. Navy puts it, “provides lethal effects against a range of target types, from armored vehicles, thin-skinned vehicles and maritime patrol craft to urban structures and field fortifications.” It also has a programmable, delayed detonation warhead to allow it to penetrate bunkers or similar targets and then explode inside, instead of exploding outside. JAGM can, as Defense News states, engage targets in bad weather or obscured (think smoke) conditions. JAGM’s range is probably identical to the Hellfire—as a tactical battlefield missile, there isn’t much point in a missile that can strike at more than five miles.
The Pentagon hasn’t said much about JAGM’s new capabilities but one new capability it has that Hellfire lacks is the ability to hit moving targets. Hellfires can hit moving targets but the weapons operator must keep the laser trained on the target until missile impact, something that apparently has just a 35 percent success rate. A moving target capability will also be useful to the Navy, which is concerned about fast-moving swarms of armed speedboats overwhelming the defenses of larger ships. The Navy is staying out of the program for now but future interest is a virtual certainty.