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Air-to-Ground Missiles: AGM-114 Hellfire

The AGM-114 Hellfire is an air-to-ground precision-strike missile used by the U.S. military against armor. Capable of being launched from a variety of helicopters, fighters, drones, and other platforms, the Hellfire can be configured for various missions. Developed originally for use by helicopters, the Hellfire name comes from "helicopter-launched fire-and-forget" missile. An onboard autopilot system guides the AGM-114 to a laser-designated target. The missile contains a high-explosive antitank (HEAT) warhead that can penetrate vehicles with strong armor. In use since the 1980s, the Hellfire has been deployed worldwide.

US Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment carry an AGM-114 Hellfire missile to be loaded on an AH-64 Apache Longbow helicopter at the forward arming refueling point prior to a mission during a joint field exercise with USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft units at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, 18 Sep 2006
US Soldiers with 1st Battalion, 2nd Aviation Regiment carry an AGM-114 Hellfire missile to be loaded on an AH-64 Apache Longbow helicopter at the forward arming refueling point prior to a mission during a joint field exercise with USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft units at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, 18 Sep 2006.

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AGM-1145 Hellfire Air-to-Ground Missile Development

US Navy MH-60R Seahawk Helicopter assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 71, launches an AGM-114 Hellfire missile while conducting test operations over the Pacific Test Range, near San Diego, CA, 24 April 2008
US Navy MH-60R Seahawk Helicopter assigned to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 71, launches an AGM-114 Hellfire missile while conducting test operations over the Pacific Test Range, near San Diego, CA, 24 April 2008.

The U.S. Army issued a requirement for a helicopter-launched, tank-busting missile in 1974 under the name Helicopter Launched Fire and Forget Missile. Rockwell received a development contract for the newly designated AGM-114A Hellfire in October 1976. The first test firing of the YAGM-114A prototype took place in 1978, and the Army finished operational testing in 1981. Production of the AGM-114A was approved in 1982, with Initial Operational Capability achieved in 1985.

The AGM-114A is powered by a Thiokol solid-rocket motor. Navigation is achieved using fins with movable trailing-edge surfaces. The Hellfire's laser seeker can lock onto painted targets before or after launch. The AGM-114 can be launched in two modes: ripple, when each of the targets is painted with a different laser, or rapid succession, in which one designator shifts to the next target after the first is hit. The AGM-114A was first used on the AH-64A Apache Attack Helicopter.

The AGM-114B is the first variant of the Hellfire used by the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy. The only major change to the missile is the addition of a safing/arming device (SAD) for shipboard safety. The AGM-114B also uses a reduced-smoke rocket motor, the Thiokol TX-657, along with an improved seeker and autopilot.

Further improvements to the Hellfire led to the AGM-114D in the Army and the AGM-114E in the Navy and Marine Corps. However, neither of these variants reached the development stage.

The AGM-114F is known as the "interim Hellfire" because it was the last of the original Hellfire variants. It uses a dual warhead to defeat reactive armor. In this warhead, a small precursor warhead is placed between the laser seeker and the main warhead, which lengthens the missile a bit. The AGM-114F also includes a guidance section with better clutter rejection, but with reduced range. This Hellfire variant entered production in 1991. The AGM-114G is the Navy and Marine Corps version of the AGM-114F, equipped with a SAD, but was never built.

AGM-114 Hellfire missile mounted to a US Army AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopter parked on FOB Salerno, Afghanistan, 19 April 2007, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom
AGM-114 Hellfire missile mounted to a US Army AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopter parked on FOB Salerno, Afghanistan, 19 April 2007, in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

In 1989 work on a greatly improved AGM-114 started. Originally called the Hellfire Optimized Missile System (HOMS), it later gained the name Hellfire II. Operation Desert Storm highlighted the limits of the first Hellfire, leading to the development of a new digital autopilot, a larger precursor warhead, a seeker more able to combat countermeasures, and reprogrammable software.

The software allows the Hellfire II to be configured for different attack profiles and detonation timing of the precursor/main warhead. The improved systems reduce the length of the Hellfire II, which in turn increases the range as compared to the AGM-114F. The AGM-114J represents the Army version of the Hellfire II, and the AGM-114K, the SAD-equipped Navy and Marine Corps version. However, the AGM-114J was not built, and all services used the AGM-114K. The first production AGM-114K Hellfire II was delivered in December 1994.

The AGM-114L was purpose-built for use with the AN/APG-78 Longbow radar on the AH-64D helicopter. Known as the "Longbow Hellfire," this variant has a millimeter-wave active radar seeker. Test firing of the AGM-114L started in 1994, with production being authorized in 1995. The first Longbow Hellfire missiles entered service in 1998.

The AGM-114M derives from the AGM-114K, but has a new blast-fragmentation warhead and a better SAD. Intended for use by the Navy's MH-60R helicopters, the first AGM-114Ms were delivered in December 2000. The AGM-114N is also derived from the AGM-114K, and has a thermobaric warhead that produces an initial blast overpressure and then a slow burn. All of these variants were deployed on Marine Corps AH-1W helicopters during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The AGM-114P originates from the AGM-114K, but is optimized for use on UAVs such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

The most recent Hellfire missile as of 2012 is the AGM-114R. Developed for the U.S. Army, it has an integrated blast frag sleeve (IBFS). This Hellfire is used on helicopter and UAV systems. The Army has also developed a Hellfire launcher for ground vehicles such as the HMMWV.

A total of more than 60,000 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles have been built.

AGM-114 Hellfire Operational History

USAF MQ-1 Predator (unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV) armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, performs a low altitude pass during the Aviation Nation 2005 Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base, NV, 13 Nov 2005
USAF MQ-1 Predator (unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV) armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, performs a low altitude pass during the Aviation Nation 2005 Air Show at Nellis Air Force Base, NV, 13 Nov 2005.

The Hellfire was first deployed in combat during Operation Just Cause in Panama. It was later used in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Allied Force, and Operation Enduring Freedom, as well as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Over 6,000 Hellfire missiles were fired by the U.S. military between 2001 and 2007. The missile has proven effective in urban areas because of its small blast radius and precision targeting.

As a part of the War on Terror, a CIA-operated Predator UAV fired Hellfire missiles in Yemen on 3 November 2002, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harthi, a senior Al Qaeda operative.

The Hellfire was used to kill Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin in 2004. It was launched from a MQ-9 Reaper used against insurgents in the De Rawood region of Afghanistan on 28 October 2007, marking the first kill by a Reaper. The Hellfire was also used to kill Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemem in 2011.

Characteristics of the AGM-114 Hellfire

Power PlantThiokol M120E1 solid-rocket motor
Length64 in.
Diameter7 in.
Wing Span13 in.
Weight100 lbs.
SpeedMach 1.3
Range5 mi.
Warhead18 lb. shaped charge or 20 lb. tandem charge
Guidance systemSemi-active laser homing; millimeter wave radar seeker

Note: Characteristics change slightly depending on the AGM-114 variant.

Recommended Books about Air-to-Ground Weapons and the AGM-114 Hellfire

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