Launched from an MQ-9 Reaper, the use of the modernized Hellfire missiles has the potential to significantly expand the drone’s operational range.
During this year’s biennial Valiant Shield exercise, which took place in June, the AATC oversaw the testing of the new AGM-114R-4 long-range Hellfire missile. The “weaponry” software that came with the device was also supposed to be tested.
The AGM-114R-4, according to the AATC, can travel almost three times further than prior missile types. Hence the most recent test supposedly produced the longest Hellfire shot.
To quote the 174th Attack Wing: “MQ-9 block five aircraft were provided to the AATC MQ-9 Test Detachment.” ” Test flights were conducted from Creech Air Base with crews from the Air National Guard Air Combat Command (ACC) and the Air Force Special Operations Command, with support from the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron’s Block 30 Ground Control Station (AFSOC).
The AATC went on to point out that the test was interesting in that it showed how the AGM-114R-4 could potentially “double the standoff range of the MQ-9,” giving the drone the ability to engage threats while avoiding their ability to counterattack, which is essential for survival in a contested environment.
This is especially notable considering the Air Force has been curtailing Reaper operations due to the drone’s perceived vulnerability in high-profile conflicts.
To understand the significance of this recent test, it is essential to understand the performance specifications of the AGM-114 series and the MQ-9.
To begin with, the AGM-114 Hellfire is a family of primarily short-range air-to-ground, and now sometimes anti-aircraft, laser-guided missiles (apart from the AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire, which uses radar homing) designed by Lockheed. Martin.
The Hellfire is used by dozens of countries on many platforms and was initially designed for an anti-armor role, but it has since evolved to take on many other types of targets. Above all, it became a staple weapon in the Global War on Terror.
The missile’s solid-propellant rocket motor ranges from 4–7 miles (seven to 11 kilometers).
AATC’s announcement suggests the upgraded long-range AGM-114R-4 might reach 21 miles in ideal conditions. Even halving this value increases platform flexibility significantly.
Assuming this new long-range Hellfire has undergone modifications to its rocket engine to increase its range, current advances in rocket boosters could mean the new variant wouldn’t necessarily end up being much longer than it’s standard 64- to 69-inch length.
Although we are not sure what the new setup looks like now. Significant improvements to the missile’s software and autopilot, which allow flight profiles to be tailored based on target situation, can also extend its range.
AGM-114 variants can be launched from Navy MH-60 Seahawks, Army AH-64 Apaches, Marine AH-1Z Vipers, and MQ-9 Reapers in the United States military.
They are also used by special operations craft AC-130s, MH-60 Direct Action Penetrators and AH-6s Little Birds, and Marine KC-130J Harvest Hawks.
A few littoral combat ships are also becoming fitted with them for use at sea. Lastly, the Stryker-based M-SHORAD short-range air defense systems also use Hellfires to counter slow- and low-flying threats.
The AGM-114 family missiles are armed with various warheads ranging from blast fragmentation types to anti-tank, thermobaric, and even more “exotic” types.
The MQ-9 has always carried the AGM-114. With a 3,750-pound payload capacity, the drone can carry four AGM-114 missiles, GBU-12 Paveway II, GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway II and GBU-54 Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions, plus pods and fuel tanks. MQ-9 has tested air-to-air missiles.
However, in September 2020, a new update to the drone’s software, facilitated by an Air Force initiative dubbed “Operational Flight Program 2409,” allowed the service to arm the MQ-9’s pylons, which would otherwise they would be used primarily for the bombs, with an additional four AGM-114s. The software update brought the number of Hellfire missiles an MQ-9 can carry to eight.