Armed Forces International News - June 2008

British Military Using Hellfire Weapons in Afghanistan

Posted by Paul Fiddian on 23/06/2008 - 17:51:18

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The British military has employed a weapon considered to be among the world's deadliest and most controversial in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Thermobaric Weapons

British Army Apache AH1 helicopters have launched these weapons - Hellfire AGM-114Ns - against insurgent forces located inside caves and other structures.

So-termed 'Thermobaric' weapons such as the Hellfire work by creating a pressure wave that, effectively, extracts the air from those they strike.

Thermobaric weapons saw their initial military use in the hands of the Russian armed forces during the 1980s.

The MoD has now conceded that such weapons have been used a number of times by British forces, including in a strike on a cave.

UAVs to Launch Hellfire

According to a spokesman for the MoD, the Hellfire AGM-114N's success is such that they will be fitted to Royal Air Force Reaper UAVs and launched via the electronic input of the "pilots" controlling them thousands of miles away.

Apache Hellfire Strikes

The British military acquired the AGM-114Ns after Apache pilots highlighted how the conventional Hellfire missiles within the helicopters' armouries were not striking inside structural targets but, rather, passing straight through them.

An Apache helicopter launches a Hellfire missileSuch is the controversy attached to these thermobaric weapons that experts working for the MoD took 18 months to decide whether it was appropriate for British pilots to be able to fire them and still adhere to international conventions.

Ultimately, the weapons, in British military service, were re-labelled, as a spokesman for the MoD explained:

"We no longer accept the term thermobaric [for the Hellfire AGM-114N] as there is no internationally agreed definition", he said.

"We call it an enhanced blast weapon."

The AGM-114N is made by Lockheed Martin, under whose terminology it is still referred to as 'thermobaric'.

US Thermobaric Weapons Capability

The US military acquired a thermobaric weapons capability three years ago. At the time, President Bush stated: "There are going to be some awfully surprised terrorists when the thermobaric Hellfire comes knocking."

Blast Vacuum

Thermobaric devices are conceived to explode in two phases. An initial blast generates a cloud of explosive matter, which is subsequently ignited. A vacuum is formed from the blast which sucks air and matter inwards.

According to Lockheed Martin's Jim Gribschaw, the AGM-114N is "capable of reaching around corners to strike enemy forces hiding in cases, bunkers and hardened multi-room complexes."

In the words of Human Rights Watch, these weapons are "especially brutal", with the blast produced by them making it "virtually impossible for civilians to take shelter."

On the subject of the emergence of information concerning the British military's use of these weapons in Afghanistan, defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Nick Harvey, stated: "It is staggering the MoD has added these weapons to Britain's arsenal in cloak-and-dagger secrecy. Parliament has never assented to their use."

"Gordon Brown claimed the moral high ground when Britain supported a ban on cluster munitions but leaving a loophole for these weapons casts a different picture on the true position."

The ministry stated: "We are conscious of the controversial aspects [of this weapon] but it is being used sparingly and under strict circumstances where it is deemed appropriate by the commander on the ground."

An spokesman for the MoD added that objectives could be achieved "...with the minimum coalition casualties and reduced collateral damage."

Source - Armed Forces International's Aviation Expert

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