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Home > English > Opinion > Hellfire Missile Accuracy Problems Uncovered in Pentagon Data

Hellfire Missile Accuracy Problems Uncovered in Pentagon Data

Official claims of “pinpoint” accuracy are exaggerated

Sunday 27 November 2011, by Matthew J. Nasuti (Former U.S. Air Force Captain)

Newly disclosed information by the Pentagon casts doubt on the accuracy and reliability of it primary anti-terrorism tool, the AGM-114 “Hellfire” missile. Fired from drone aircraft such as the Predator, it is the mainstay of the CIA’s not-so-secret bombing campaign in North Waziristan. These new revelations call into question the credibility of dozens of U.S. military and intelligence officials who have been briefing Congress and the American people for years about this weapon system. Exaggerated claims of “pinpoint” accuracy have been used to justify the increasing use of this weapon against targets in urban areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and other countries. The result has been increased civilian casualties.

Details about the missile’s problems have been slowly emerging as part of Lockheed-Martin’s bid to have Congress fund the latest upgrade of the Hellfire missile called “Version R” or “Romeo II.” The Pentagon has begun to promote the AGM-114-R using the argument that it is “more accurate and more reliable.” Descriptions of the Romeo II state that it has “improved software,” a better guidance system and a captive carry health-monitoring system. The latter consists of an array of sensors that monitor such parameters as heat, vibration and humidity within the missile in order to improve maintenance and prevent system failures. The Pentagon promises improved accuracy as a result. This begs the obvious question:

“What are the accuracy, reliability and failure problems of the current Hellfire version that require such an expensive correction?”

In the January 7, 1991, edition of the Los Angeles Times, in an article entitled “U.S. Military Muscle,” Pentagon officials boasted that the Hellfire delivers “pinpoint” accuracy. In the twenty years since then, the U.S. Air Force has obtained funding for more than a half dozen upgraded versions of the Hellfire. In each case, U.S. officials argued that the new version was more accurate than the prior version. Thus, the Hellfire is now apparently six times more accurate than pinpoint accurate.

If the existing Hellfire version is so fantastically accurate, then what is the need for the “Romeo II” upgrade?

In the December 2006, edition of the Air Force Times, Pentagon officials boasted once again that the Hellfire delivers “pinpoint” accuracy. It is, of course, per se disingenuous to assert pinpoint accuracy because such is simply not possible. No missile can consistently hit a target the size of a pin. That would require accuracy to within an inch from an aircraft flying at 25,000 feet and firing at a moving target 8,000 meters away under all types of weather conditions.

On March 6, 2008, USA Today published a story by Tom Vanden Brook entitled: “Air Force Seeks More Fighter Drones.” Air Force Lt. General Gary North is quoted as describing the Hellfire as “very very accurate” (which, again, is nothing more than puffery sans facts). This puffery apparently masks still further undisclosed problems. The Air Force has indirectly acknowledged that even “Version R” will not fix all the defects in the Hellfire. As a result, the Pentagon is moving forward with development on a replacement for the pinpoint accuracy of the Hellfire. The new program is called JAGM, which stands for Joint Air to Ground Missile.

It promises (once again) to be more accurate and reliable than the apparently perfectly accurate Hellfire!

Some of these classified Hellfire deficiencies were evident on May 5, 2011, when the United States deployed a fearsome armada of aircraft into the skies above Yemen. It included AC-130 gunships, Harrier fighter planes and combat drones. The target was a suspected terrorist named Anwar al-Awlaki. What we know now is that an air to ground missile was fired. The laser guided missile missed the convoy, either because it lost its missile lock or never acquired one to begin with. Anwar al-Awlaki stopped his vehicle and switched cars, but the switch was not detected. Two more missiles were fired and they both missed him. Thereafter, due to bad weather and a lack of fuel for some of the aircraft, further strikes were called off. The air strikes on Anwar al-Awlaki’s convoy were a stunning failure, which should have prompted Congressional hearings, but such never occurred.

The same hearings were not held in 2002 when the CIA fired on and yet failed to hit 2002’s primary bogeyman, terrorist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyr who was attending a meeting in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Between 2002 and 2011, there have been a significant string of missile failures and misses, many occurring during CIA air strikes into North Waziristan. None of this would be possible if the Hellfire lived up to its propaganda.

Numerous variables have contributed to the plague of accuracy and reliability problems regarding the Hellfire missile including:
1. Distance to target, which impacts beam divergence and which would cause a dilution in precision;
2. Weather conditions such as clouds, rain, fog and smoke. These are called “negative illumination factors” and can contribute to beam attenuation, which can diminish targeting accuracy;
3. Human mistake;
4. Equipment error, including design defects, maintenance problems, and environmental tolerance deficiencies, which can impact missile performance; and
5. Inherent problems associated with laser targeting, including a phenomenon called “backscatter” in which some of the laser energy is reflected back from the target thus confusing the laser seeker. As a result, the Hellfire may lock onto a nearby cloud or smoke instead of the actual target.

If Congress would look closely at the validation tests for the proposed Romeo II, it would find it being tested primarily against stationary targets sitting in the open on a flat test range at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida. In March 2011, in Test No. 6, a Romeo II was fired at a brick building only 2500 meters away. The test could not have been more “friendly.” It was designed to record a positive outcome. These less-than-rigorous tests border on being a sham.

Within the Air Force and in order to covertly compensate for the deficiencies of the Hellfire, a tactic was developed called the “double tap.” The very existence of this practice should have set off warning bells on Capital Hill. Double tap means that the military fires two Hellfire missiles at each target in order to ensure that at least one hits the target. If two missiles are needed for each kill then each Hellfire is at most only 50% reliable, which is not how this system has been described to Congress.

Equally troubling is that Lockheed-Martin developed a suspect firing mechanism for the Hellfire to support the double tap. It is called “ripple fire.” Under this sequence, a Hellfire missile is launched against a target and, a few seconds later, a second Hellfire is launched to follow the first. The controversy involves the targeting computer. If it determines that the first missile successfully destroyed the target, it instantly redirects the second missile to a secondary target. The problem is that there is not always time for the second missile to be properly redirected. The apparent result is that the second missile strikes somewhere other than the target.

The military tends to define missile accuracy and reliability with a two-dimensional statistical metric called Circular Error Probable or CEP. The Pentagon claims that the CEP for the Hellfire is five meters or less. If that CEP was properly formulated, it means that in 50% of the cases the Hellfire will strike within five meters of its target. It also means that the remaining 50% of the Hellfires will fall and detonate somewhere outside of this five-meter circle. How far outside they might fall has not been revealed.

On July 14, 2009, the Brookings Institution published an analysis by senior fellow Daniel L. Byman which concluded that the Pentagon and CIA were causing ten civilian deaths with the Hellfire missile for every militant killed. If true, then the Hellfire is causing more harm than good.

Like a Ponzi scheme, the sheer number of distortions and exaggerations about the Hellfire missile system should cause the program to collapse. Funding should be cut for this missile and its versions until all of their deficiencies are fully investigated. Until then, the Hellfire’s use in urban areas should be suspended.

Final Note: The Pentagon has been exaggerating the accuracy of all its so-called “smart” bombs since their debut in or about 1972. This propaganda effort has been one of the biggest frauds ever perpetrated on the American public.


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