The Hellfire missile is the primary 100-pound (45 kg) class air-to-ground precision weapon having multi-mission, multi-target precision-strike ability, and can be launched from multiple air, sea, and ground platforms, including the Predator drone. But the most common platform is the AH-64 Apache helicopter gunship, which can carry up to 16 of the missiles at once.
The LONGBOW HELLFIRE missile locks on targets before or after launch and has been used in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and in a number of targeted killings of high-profile individuals.
The Hellifire missile shall now be replaced with the JAGM, that is meant to provide the precision standoff-strike capability to target high-value fixed and moving targets, both armored and unarmored, even in poor weather conditions. It will replace several air-launched missiles, including the AGM-114 Hellfire.
It features a new dual-mode seeker and guidance system mated to a Hellfire missile. The JAGM combines semi-active laser guidance, like that used on the Hellfire II, and millimeter-wave radar, like that used by the Longbow Hellfire, into a single system. The millimeter wave seeker allows the missile to perform in full fire and forget mode. It also works in adverse weather and battlefield obscurants, such as smoke and fog which can mask the position of a target or prevent a designating laser from forming a detectable reflection.
Paired with a Hellfire Romeo warhead, motor, and flight-control system, the new missile is designed to hit vehicles and personnel in the open. A programmable delay feature allows it penetrate buildings or vehicles before detonating.
As NAVAIR explains, the JAGM is a so-called joint program in partnership with the U.S. Army. If and when the JAGM becomes an operational weapon, it will offer the Pentagon a precision-guided capability for use against high value stationary, moving and relocatable land and sea-based targets.
Army and Marine Corps attack helicopters will be the first to see it, though it could eventually make its way on to any aircraft that fires Hellfires, such as unmanned vehicles like the MQ-9 Reaper drone.
In May 2016, JAGM fired from a UAV, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle, for the first time, hitting a truck target traveling 20 mph (32 km/h). It was the seventh flight test and successful hit. In December 2016, JAGM launched by an AH-64D destroyed a small boat more than 4 km (2.5 mi) away in the tenth successful flight test.
The program was originally restructured several years ago from integrating a tri-mode seeker into the system to a dual-mode due to affordability challenges. A more expensive tri-mode seeker adding an imaging infrared sensor is delayed. Lockheed claimed the IR seeker disproportionately drove up costs, while Raytheon claimed it could leverage technology it used for the GBU-53/B SDB II to inexpensively keep the tri-mode seeker.
“As the threat and the requirements change, we will look at that next increment that would bring a tri-mode seeker and figure out the best acquisition strategy for going after that capability,” Warnick said. JAGM has an open architecture system, he added, “so there is growth capability in it and if the requirements and resources are available we will go after it.”
Warnick said JAGM will reach an initial operational capability in March 2019, which equates to providing 96 munitions for the stockpile. Then the Army will move to a full-rate production decision in September 2019.
The Army plans to spend a total of $1.6 billion to procure roughly 6,741 JAGM missiles across a five-year period from fiscal 2019 and 2023, according to FY19 Army budget request justification documents.
MBDA Inc.’s Brimstone missile, also uses dual mode seeker a laser designator and a sophisticated radar to find its targets, has been fired 300 times in Afghanistan and Libya and has a 98 percent strike rate. The Brimstone warhead uses a shaped charge and destroys the target with a much contained explosion that generates relatively little debris.
High Kill probability and Aircrew survivability
In addition to allowing the aircrew to fire from outside the range of defense systems, the new missile is designed to protect them with a terminal-guidance capability, which allows the aircraft to leave the area after firing. The aircrew can switch the missile’s guidance between the semi-active laser or a radio frequency within seconds.
“Using a SAL missile, the last six seconds of the missile flight is the most critical to keep your laser sight on target,” said Michael Kennedy, an experimental test pilot with the Aviation Flight Test Directorate at Redstone Test Center.
“If you’re getting shot at and your line of sight goes off the target, your missile misses,” Kennedy added. “JAGM can start off using the laser, then transition to the radar portion and still hit the target if the crew has to use evasive maneuvers.”
“The ability to not have to put the laser directly on the target and let the adversary know that you are about to kill him is a tremendous benefit,” said Al Maes, an aviation weapons technical adviser for the Training and Doctrine Command’s Capability Manager Recon Attack.
“Once you have the missile off the rail and encounter smoke or dust or fog, a regular laser missile could lose that target,” Maes said in an Army release. “With JAGM, I have a pretty good guarantee that I am going to kill that target with a single missile instead of multiple missile shots.”
Ironing out problems
And while the Army had two misses out of 20 firings of the JAGM missile early on, the program office is confident in the missile’s ability to hit and destroy targets.
The engineering and manufacturing development version of the missile also missed two targets early in testing, one hitting the ground “well outside the burst radius of the warhead” and another hitting “near the bottom of the vehicle track and road wheels,” the report states.
And while 18 missiles were launched from an AH-64E Apache attack helicopter during tests, one of the four launches with a live warhead failed to detonate, according to the report.
The report also said testing showed that Apache targeting systems “occasionally generate erroneous target velocities that are passed to the missile without cueing the gunner of the errors.”
Initial cybersecurity testing on the missile found what the DOT&E report called a Category 1 vulnerability: “A trained and knowledgeable cyber analyst could gain access to the missile-guidance software.” For one, the cyber vulnerability identified in April tests has been fixed, according to Col. David Warnick, the Army’s JAMS PM, said in a recent interview.
“We obviously have a cyber requirement and so we had a couple of test events laid into the program to ensure that we are complying with all of the hardening and capabilities that we are supposed to have,” Warnick said.
“We have since conducted an additional 19 tests and although the external agency is the scorer, I can say that all of our missiles left the rail, guided correctly to the target and impacted the target and performed nominally how we expected them to and so we are very encouraged by those results,” Warnick said.
“I think our findings are going to be the missile performed how we want it to, we don’t want to change any of the algorithms,” Warnick said. “What we would do is we would more likely offer to use a different mode for those specific engagements.”
The JAGM has multiple modes that can be selected to go up against a variety of targets. If the missile had used a different mode during the test, it would have had a higher probability of hitting the target, Warnick explained.
When the Army fields the systems, it will provide guidance for the correct mode to use when employing JAGM against certain target sets, he added.