Why the Hellfire is one of America's favorite missiles

The AGM-114 Hellfire missile was created to give America an advantage against the Soviet military’s massive tank formations.

But now the missile is used as everything from an anti-personnel weapon to bunker buster.

The Hellfire was conceived in 1974 in response to an Army request for a helicopter-launched, fire-and-forget, anti-tank missile.

What came out of the program was the AGM-114A Hellfire missile which followed a laser designator to reach its target. It carried a 17-pound warhead and was deployed around the world.

As the missile evolved, versions were created that provided better missile guidance, lethality, and safety.

Hellfire missiles from Cobra gunships strike targets during a live-fire training exercise conducted by Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 2nd Marine Logistics Group at Twentynine Palms, Calif., May 31, 2013. Marines called in repeated air and artillery strikes to suppress targets blocking the path of a convoy. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Paul Peterson)

Hellfire missiles bring a lot of boom. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Paul Peterson)

While early models had a limited ability to turn in flight and relied on laser designators, newer models carry radar systems and are more agile.

The most nimble variants, the AGM-114R and AGM-114T, can even turn quickly enough to kill enemies behind the aircraft.

New warheads make the missile more lethal against a wide range of targets. The shaped-charge warheads from the original Hellfire have given way to tandem high-explosive warheads to defeat reactive armor.

An Apache attack helicopter assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 501st Aviation Regiment, 1st AD Combat Aviation Brigade also known as ‘Task Force Apocalypse’, fires a Hellfire missile Sept. 11, 2014 at Fort Irwin, California. Task Force Apocalypse is participating in 4th Armored Brigade Combat Team 1st Armored Division’s National Training Center rotation ‘14-10.’ (US Army photo by: Sgt. Aaron R. Braddy/Released)

Don’t worry. Be happy. (Unless you’re the target.) (Photo: U.S. Army Sgt. Aaron R. Braddy)

The metal augmented charge of the AGM-114N is a thermobaric warhead which fills an enclosed space with a highly reactive metal and then detonates the mixture, creating a massive, secondary explosion.

Meanwhile, adaptations to the Hellfire and its launchers allow more and more platforms to carry it. The Navy now deploys the AGM-114L on ships so they can better protect themselves from attacks by fast boats and other threats.

161006-N-MW990-109 PACIFIC OCEAN (Oct. 6, 2016) - Littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) patrols the Pacific Ocean during flight operations in the 7th Fleet area of operation. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) engineers successfully completed the restrained firing test of the Longbow Hellfire missile for the Littoral Combat Ship Surface-to-Surface Missile Module, the Navy announced on Oct. 6, 2016. "This critical test concludes another vital step in a series of efforts that will lead to the fielding of this tremendous capability to LCS and to the Fleet," said Capt. Ted Zobel, program manager for the LCS Mission Module Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer Second Class Michaela Garrison/Released)

The Littoral combat ship USS Coronado is not afraid of you. (Photo: U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class Michaela Garrison)

The Hellfire’s iconic air platform is still the Apache, but it catches rides on AH-1s, drones, Blackhawks, Kiowas, and even modified Cessnas.

Land vehicles employ the missile as well. Lockheed self-funded the development of the Long Range Surveillance and Attack Vehicle which can fire the Hellfire or the DAGR, a smaller weapon with most of the Hellfire II’s technology.

The Hellfire’s finest hours came in the 1991 Persian Gulf War when Army Apaches claimed 500 Iraqi tank kills with the missile. That’s not even counting Hellfire kills achieved by AH-1 Cobras.