Hellfire Meets Predator

How the drone was cleared to shoot.

In 2000, Predators began reconnaissance missions for the CIA in Afghanistan. After 9/11, they flew armed, becoming the most controversial weapon since the atom bomb. (Lt. Col. Leslie Pratt/USAF)
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Contrary to later accounts, Air Force General John Jumper’s initiative to arm the Predator originally had nothing to do with the CIA’s covert operations against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Nor was Jumper’s project secret, though defense industry trade publications were the only media paying attention.

On May 1, 2000, when Jumper, chief of Air Combat Command, announced his intent to arm the 27-foot-long reconnaissance drone, using the unarmed version to look for Osama bin Laden was still no more than an idea the National Security Council’s Richard Clarke and the CIA’s Charlie Allen were urging on their reluctant bosses. Hardly anyone outside the military even knew what a Predator was, and many insiders were unimpressed by the fragile little reconnaissance drone, which in Bosnia had proved vulnerable to bad weather and relatively easy for the enemy to shoot down. The Air Force owned only 16 Predators at the time, and was planning to buy a total of only 48 Predators by the end of 2003.

In 1999, Jumper had directed the Air Force to experiment with putting laser designators on the drone; arming it was what he called “the next logical step.” For technical, legal, and cultural reasons, that step was a giant one. Since the Kettering Bug, World War I’s never-used “aerial torpedo,” the U.S. military had tried putting explosives or bombs or missiles on drones several times, but the results were never satisfactory. The closest brush with success came in the 1970s, when the Air Force and Teledyne Ryan put the TV-guided Maverick missile and later a TV-guided glide bomb on some Firebee target drones. By firing a Maverick from a modified Firebee on December 14, 1971, at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the Air Force’s 6514th Test Squadron claimed a place in aviation history: the first launch of an air-to-ground missile from a remotely piloted aircraft. None was put into operation, though, and with the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Air Force interest in drones evaporated. The Navy, meanwhile, cancelled the most extensive armed UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) program in U.S. history the same year the armed Firebee was tested, retiring its QH-50 DASH drone helicopter, which carried torpedoes and even nuclear depth bombs that were never used in combat.

The missile that armed the Predator (China Lake launch test) was originally designed to be fired from helicopters. (NAWS China Lake)
In early tests, it shot at plywood silhouettes and watermelons. (Courtesy Richard Whittle)
The Hellfire missile is used today by 11 different types of helicopters, including the Apache, below, firing a Hellfire in a 2014 exercise at Fort Irwin, California. (Sgt. Aaron R. Braddy/US Army)
Airmen conduct preflight checks on the MQ-1 Predator prior to a 2012 flight with a simulated Hellfire missile during training at Southern California Logistics Airport. (Sgt. Julie Avey/Air National Guard)
After a 2003 mission, a 64th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron airman guides a Predator into its hangar at Tallil Air Base. Predators have struck targets in Iraq. (Sgt. Robert Grande/USAF)
The first Predator to launch a Hellfire (above) now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum. (General Atomics Aeronautical Systems)

Over the three decades since those experiments, the idea of weaponizing UAVs had been pursued by a number of people. But after 1987 the very legality of arming drones became questionable, at least for the United States and the Soviet Union. On December 8 of that year, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which required both nations to eliminate ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 300 to 3,300 miles. Missiles launched from the sea or air were outside the pact, which defined a ground-launched cruise missile as “an unmanned, self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight path” and “a weapon-delivery vehicle.” The INF Treaty, as it is known, prompted Congress to give the Navy-run Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Joint Program Office authority solely over “nonlethal” drones.

In 1996, the INF Treaty between Washington and Moscow remained in force. The Predator’s success in Bosnia, however, was sparking new thinking about drones. For some, it was more exciting to imagine the technical possibilities than the possible legal limits.

No one was more excited about Jumper’s decision than Air Force Major General Michael C. Kostelnik, who saw it as an opportunity to advance his Small Smart Bomb. He wanted to run Jumper’s project, but Bill Grimes, the director of the shadowy Air Force technology shop known as Big Safari, thought it belonged to his outfit, which after all was the Predator’s official System Program Office. Lieutenant General Robert F. Raggio, a three-star that both Grimes and Kostelnik answered to, sided with Grimes. In early June 2000, Raggio told Kostelnik to stand down and directed Big Safari to figure out the smartest way to meet Jumper’s goal.

Grimes’ staff came up with three options. The Air Force, they found, owned no weapons light enough for a Predator to carry and had only two experimental ones in the works, the Small Smart Bomb and a lightweight, air-launched cruise missile that was still just a concept. The Army, however, had a missile that Big Safari thought showed promise. It weighed a mere 98 pounds but packed enough punch to kill a tank. Army helicopters had first fired it in combat nine years earlier, during the 1991 Gulf War, so it was proven. The Army had more than 11,000 in stock, and the Navy and Marine Corps had some too. Best of all, this Army missile was a “smart” weapon; it homed in on its targets by seeking the sparkle of a laser designator. The missile’s official designation was AGM-114, with AGM standing for “antitank guided missile.” Its official name was Heliborne-Launched Fire-and-Forget Missile. But to those familiar with it, the missile was known by an acronym describing what it delivered—-Hellfire.

On June 21, Jumper got a briefing from Colonel Robert E. Dehnert Jr., director of reconnaissance programs for the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, on the three options Big Safari had come up with. The two Air Force weapons that might work, Jumper was told, would not be available in useful quantities for several years. The Army’s Hellfire was available immediately and could be integrated with the Predator—made to fit under the drone’s wing and be launched from it—for as little as $485,000, a pittance to the Pentagon. The one major technical risk was that no one knew how launching a Hellfire would affect the aerodynamically delicate Predator.

There were legal hurdles to the project, no matter what weapon Jumper chose, including the 1987 INF Treaty, which was still in effect. A committee of government lawyers would have to decide whether an armed Predator fit the INF Treaty’s definition of a ground-launched cruise missile. If it did, Jumper’s “next logical step” could be a violation of a major international agreement.

At the conclusion of Dehnert’s briefing, Jumper directed his staff to work with Big Safari to come up with a detailed plan for arming the Predator with the Hellfire.

Just over three weeks later, on July 14, Dehnert returned to Jumper’s headquarters. The conference room was packed with more than 40 Air Force officers, senior enlisted experts, and officials and engineers from General Atomics and other companies. Standing beside a screen at one end of the conference room, Dehnert went through a series of slides that outlined two possible plans for arming the Predator with the Hellfire.

“The immediate objective is to fire a Hellfire missile from a Predator and hit something,” one of the first slides said. The first option Dehnert described would take nine months, cost an estimated $1.3 million, and offer “medium technical risk.”  The second option was a 12-week “Accelerated Demo” expected to cost $1.5 million and disrupt all other Predator projects. This quicker option would also come with “high technical risk,” for it would be done the Big Safari way: with the least possible government regulation and paperwork.

 As a result of the meeting, Jumper said that Big Safari would get $3 million to arm the Predator with the Hellfire—about double the cost of either option Dehnert had outlined, and $200,000 more than the two combined. Jumper also directed Big Safari to execute both the accelerated demonstration and the more cautious one.

***

Marrying the Hellfire to the Predator was no simple matter. A week after getting Jumper’s order, Big Safari director Grimes hosted a meeting at his headquarters in Dayton to discuss technical and other issues with representatives from the Hellfire program office at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal, engineers from General Atomics and other companies, and various Air Force experts.

“My first question is: Can I fire your missile off Predator without knocking it out of the sky?” Grimes asked the Army contingent.

No one was entirely sure. Whether the thrust from the Hellfire’s launch would throw the Predator into a spin when fired, or whether the missile’s plume—1,050 degrees Fahrenheit at its hottest—would damage the aircraft’s composite wings, tail, or fuselage, were questions that required engineering analysis, the team decided.

General Atomics already knew the wings needed to be beefed up to withstand the strain of carrying missiles. Hardpoints in the current wings could carry payloads of up to 100 pounds, but each Hellfire would need a launcher—a metal rack with a rail to carry and fire it from—and electrical equipment to make the launcher function. The Army experts said their Hellfire launchers were in short supply, so Big Safari might have to borrow a couple from the Navy and modify them to carry only one instead of the usual four missiles per launcher used by helicopters. The engineering team would also have to find a way to reduce the thrust needed to trigger a release spring on the rail whose function was to hold a missile in place until fired. The spring’s standard 600 pounds of resistance would have to be cut to about 235 pounds, or else a launch might rip the wing right off the aircraft.

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