Air Weapons: Hellfire Over Africa


May 22, 2016: France recently received 260 American Hellfire missiles it had ordered last year and has now ordered another 200. The first order contained 110 non-lethal training missiles while the second order are all combat models. France has been buying Hellfire II missiles for its new Tiger helicopter gunships since 2008. This was an open order, which could added to as needed. Eight missiles can be carried on a Tiger helicopter. France, and other European Tiger operators, have been impressed with the performance of Hellfire in combat but Spain selected the similar Israeli Spike ER missiles and Germany the similar, but smaller, HOT3 missile. Hellfire armed Tigers first entered combat (in Afghanistan) during 2009. That was followed by Libya (2011), Mali (2014). In early November 2015 France bought more Hellfire II missiles for its Tiger helicopter gunships serving in northern Mali.

The Tiger gunship is made by European firm Eurocopter and has seen action time in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Mali, where they have performed well. Tiger has spent over 7,500 flight hours in combat zones so far and over a hundred have been delivered. The major users are Germany, France (which has ordered 80), Spain (24), and Australia (22). A total of 206 Tiger helicopters have been ordered. So far Tigers have spent over 55,000 hours in the air, most of it for training. As a result of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris Tiger may soon be showing up in Syria and Iraq and France declaring war on ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

The Tiger costs more (some models go for over $100 million, including R&D costs) than the AH-64, a ten ton gunship that has been in service since the 1980s. Tiger entered service in 2003. The six ton Tiger has a crew of two and a max speed of 280 kilometers an hour. It cruises at 230 kilometers an hour and usually stays in the air about three hours per sortie. It is armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, 70mm rocket pods (19 rockets per pod), and various types of air-to-ground missiles (eight Hellfire types at once). It can also carry four Mistral anti-aircraft missiles.

Hellfires have been the most frequently used American air-to-ground missile since the 1990s. Since 2001 over twenty nations have fired over 10,000 Hellfires in combat. The original Hellfire entered service in 1982. Currently the most popular model is the AGM-114R. Introduced in 2010 this version of Hellfire is effective against armored and non-armored targets. The ones fired from UAVs usually are the R model. The Hellfire II weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. Hellfire has been popular because it is easy to use, reliable and very effective. For what it can do, Hellfire is very cost-effective.

In addition to UAVs, the Hellfire is most commonly used by the AH-64 helicopter gunship and, at least in Iraq, on one or two engine commercial turboprop aircraft used for reconnaissance or transports. An AH-64 can carry up to sixteen Hellfires at once. As Iraq and Afghanistan discovered it’s not difficult to arm most helicopters or light transports with Hellfire. Predator, Reaper, and Sky Warrior UAVs are the best known users of Hellfire. The missile is popular for use in urban areas because the small warhead contains only about a kilogram (2 .2 pounds) of explosives and this reduces civilian casualties. The missile is accurate enough to be sent through a window (OK, you have to be really good, and lucky, to do this) because of its laser guidance. The AGM-114R has also been test fired from a ground mount (a simple tripod device).


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