In the video re-posted above that I put up a few days ago depicting a pair of AH-64D Longbow Apache attack helicopters decimating a whole formation of Taliban fighters maneuvering on friendly forces, the Apaches shown use AGM-114 Hellfire missiles against human targets, especially once their 30mm cannon ammunition had run dry. The post received a few comments and I received a large amount of emails regarding the video, especially on the topic of Army pilots using $70,000 Hellfire missiles on people, sometimes taking out only a single person at a time. I have not responded to these comments as of yet, but I think I have to do so at this time.
First off, whether you agree with our presence in Afghanistan or not, the reality is that our troops in theater are very much at war and under constant pressure from a vicious guerrilla force with an ancient pedigree for persistence through occupation. It is clear that the job that the Apaches featured in this video were sent to do was to provide armed escort and over-watch for allied troops moving through the area. Seeing as there was a whole formation of enemy fighters who were attempting to set up an ambush near friendly forces, the Apaches did exactly what they were sent to do- to protect allied troops and to kill the enemy decisively without harming innocent civilians. The Apache crews were given the weapons they had on-board to employ by the defense department, whether it’s relatively inexpensive 30mm high explosive ammo or Hellfire missiles, they were loaded onto the birds to be used if needed. There is no heavy armor employed by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, therefore it is clear that the Hellfires were not intended for armored targets of any sort. They were meant to kill the enemy and protect ISAF troops from death at the enemy’s hand. Therefore the Apache crews did their job as asked with great precision and violence of action.
Is it stupid that America spends close to $100,000 on killing a single Taliban fighter? At first I can understand people’s resistance to the idea, but in dollar figures alone (not even accounting for the fact that each soldier’s life is precious and Apache pilots are not accountants they are their to protect the soldiers’ lives they are supporting) the truth is that a single Taliban fighter could cost the US much more than $100,000 if he were to injure or kill an American soldier. If that Taliban fighter were to kill a US soldier the the Army would lose a key weapon system, one they had spent thousands, if not millions of dollars on training and deploying. If that same American grunt takes a life threatening wound from that same Taliban fighter and survives, they would be medevaced to a field hospital at great cost, commanders in the field would lose a capable combatant, and the cost of treating such a wound over the long haul would almost certainly eclipse the cost of a single Hellfire missile by a large margin. Then there is the cost of “letting one go.” Who will that spared fighter evolve into? How will they effect America’s long-term goals in Afghanistan? If the spared fighter does not take a life on the night shown in the film what is to say they won’t on the next night? In other words, not taking the shot is a ridiculous proposition. If we send our troops to a hostile country like Afghanistan and the enemy is found they must be destroyed, especially if doing so will not bring harm to innocents. If enemy fighters were allowed to escape an engagement on a purely monetary cost basis alone, especially one as small as a single anti-tank missile, the massive expenditure for the entire Afghanistan mission overall, one lasting now over a decade, could eventually prove to be a total waste. Fight to win, or go home NOW.
Yet at the same time we must ask ourselves- is there a more fiscally reasonable way to fight a prolonged conflict like the one in Afghanistan? Does firing anti-tank missiles that cost as much as a new Mercedes-Benz really make sense when trying to take out a single enemy combatant? No it does not, but the fault falls on DoD procurement, not the war fighter. Using rough numbers, as many sources differ, a laser guided Hellfire costs around $70,000 a pop. Many times, even the 100lb Hellfire’s warhead packs too much of a punch to take out soft targets like people and the like without damaging surrounding infrastructure. The AGM-175 Griffin missile weighs approximately half as much of the Hellfire and cost about a third less to procure, and that price will drop as more weapons are bought. Further, a weapons platform can carry two Griffin missiles in the same space and weight as a single Hellfire, allowing for more targets to be engaged during a single sortie. Yet the most exciting developments in proposed helicopter and close air support weaponry is in the area of laser guided rockets. Currently Lockheed, BAe, and Raytheon all have similar weapons available. For simplicity’s sake lets use Lockheed’s DAGR (Direct Attack Guided Rocket) for this piece. DAGR takes a standard 2.75in rocket and makes it a laser homing surgical tube of death. DAGR costs less than one-third the price of a Griffin missile, and about one-fifth the cost of a Hellfire, but offers similar precision and range. Further, you can load four DAGRs, or similar laser guided rocket rounds, into a single station on a common Hellfire quad-launcher or you can stuff 19 of them into a standard M261 launcher used by current 2.75in unguided rockets. Sounds like the dream weapon for a budget conscious Pentagon and for aircrews in Afghanistan that want more flexibility in their arsenal and more rounds to get the job done right? The Pentagon apparently does not think so, as they have cut funding on and off for laser guided rockets for well over a decade. Even in 2008, during the thick of two counter insurgency wars, the Pentagon “zeroed” funding for such programs even through competition already existed in the marketplace and all signs pointed to the weapons being highly reliable and very affordable. Only now, as we make our way out of Afghanistan (supposedly) is the DoD beginning to purchase laser rockets for the field, yet to my knowledge not in large enough batches yet to become relevant and only for the Marine Corps in the guise of BAe’s Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS). A sickening missed opportunity to say the least…
I see this sort of thing time and time again. We have been in Afghanistan “Enduring Freedom” for over a decade, yet we have continued to use gas guzzling air power that was meant to fight a peer state conflict, not provide close air support to troops on the ground day in and day out for years on end. America could have procured a light attack aircraft, similar to the Beechcraft AT-6 or Embraer Super Tucano, years ago. These platforms far eclipse the utility and cost effectiveness of an F-16 or Harrier, yet instead we continued to fly the incredibly expensive aircraft we had at the time the war began, putting thousands of valuable hours on fast-jet airframes for totally frivolous purposes. It is said that a single AT-6 can fly all week on the fuel that a single F-15E drinks on a single sortie. Further, it can take off with its tanks full of $5 a gallon jet fuel and fly for hours instead of constantly guzzling $30 a gallon jet fuel pumped multiple times a sortie from a KC-135R tanker as America’s rabidly thirsty jet fighters need fuel almost on the hour to stay aloft. Further, an airframe like the AT-6 can stay with troops for hours at a time, providing armed escort and surveillance, forward air controlling, and precision attack at a moments notice. In other words, for every 500 hours of fast jet time used over in Afghanistan or Iraq, we could have bought a new AT-6 or Super Tucano, which cost roughly 1/15th the cost per hour to fly as opposed to an F-16. This means that instead of putting a pair of F-16s on fast alert and launching them daily for a three-hour airborne alert mission, we can put 90 hours on a light attack turboprop aircraft, basically keeping multiple units in the air at all times in different areas of the same battle space that the two F-16s would be sitting alert for! Further, a light attack aircraft can use cheaper weaponry that is more tailored to the targets at hand, carrying small laser guided bombs on the high-end, and laser rockets and 50cal machine guns on the lower end. In other words, there is no need to always drop a 500lb or 1000lb GPS or laser guided bomb onto a target as is customary in the jet fighter and bomber business.
In the end the Hellfire lobbing Apache pilots, doing their jobs of saving ISAF troops’ lives and eliminating the enemy with incredible talent and effectiveness, are just another sign of a our incredible individual warriors and our contrasting sickly defense procurement process which is still unwilling or unable to cope with the realities of the battlefield even after being on said battlefield for over a decade. If the DoD can blow unreal sums of cash on MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles for use in Afghanistan in a matter of months, why couldn’t they field a more economic, less collateral damage producing and tactically flexible munition for their helicopter gunships that has been in testing for years as well? In fact laser guided rockets, light attack aircraft and the like should have been a high priority when we entered into the engagements of the last decade and realized early on that we would not be leaving anytime soon. Such innovations represent fighting a war smarter and more efficiently, with less cost and greater battlefield effect. Imagine the money (and in the light attack turboprop’s case the scarce fast jet and bomber flight hours) we could have saved by procuring these relevant capabilities long ago and think about how much more effective our aviators and the grunts they support on the ground could have been with these more flexible and numerous weapons in the fight. Instead, we had to give our now tired fighter and bomber force, who did a stellar job considering their mission, something to do, all the while sitting totally in denial of the fact that we were basically knocking down paper walls with gold-plated wrecking balls.
Another use of a Hellfire missile against personnel, one of many:
PS: I received multiple emails from folks I have never corresponded with before calling the linked Apache FLIR/TADS video “war porn” and asking what it had to do with this website. Seriously, if watching a cornerstone weapon system at work in a fight that we have been engaged in for over decade is not relevant to this site than I don’t know what is. Further, Americans should be allowed to see what exactly our troops are faced with over there and what it looks like to kill the enemy where he or she stands. This is not a football game, it’s war and people are dying on both sides, if this is too much for you to watch I understand, that is why I put a graphic notice on the post. If you think videos like this are irrelevant and that people should not be allowed to see the realities that our troops see on a daily basis than you are living in a fantasy land and I wish you well in your continuous state of denial.