Advanced Hellfire Joint Air-to-Ground Missile used to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleiman

An advanced new variant of Hellfire missile may have been the primary weapon in the U.S. strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani last week, according to multiple news reports. The Washington Examiner reported the missile was fired from an MQ-9 Reaper drone and the strike was believed to have been conducted by the CIA or the U.S. Air Force. The drone is reported to be “nearly silent” and Soleimani likely had little to no foreknowledge of the impending strike. Ryan Morgan explains in American Military News.

Iranian Gen. Soleimani likely killed by an advanced Hellfire Joint Air to Ground Missile
Helicopter pod-mounted AGM-114 Hellfire II laser-guided missiles, of which the AGM-179 JAGM is an advanced variant (Picture source: Turbosquid)

The Quds Force (Revolutionary Guards) commander, Soleimani, was riding in a convoy outside the Baghdad International Airport along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis – deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) militia – when the missile struck. According to Forbes, fragments from the wreckage of the attack may indicate a newly produced AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM) was used to carry out the strike.

An Iraqi Facebook group called Tactical Cell, which describes itself as an independent investigative group, took pictures of some of the fragments left behind at the site of the strike. Mohamed Saleh Alftayeh, a self-described military analyst in the Middle East, began to identify the JAGM as the likely weapon.

Variants of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile have typically listed weight of between 45 and 50 kg, but the fragments from the missile show markings on the missile that indicated a weight of 52 kg. The extra weight may give away the added radar sensor suite included in the new JAGM, as the dual radar/laser-guided missile reportedly weighs in at 52 kg (115 pounds).

The new JAGM is meant to include multiple guidance measures that also allow for increased maneuverability to avoid missile countermeasures. JAGM, Joint Air-to-Ground Missile, was supposed to go into production in 2019. JAGM has the same motor and warhead as those of the AGM-114R, but adds radar sensor guidance to the Hellfire laser guidance. The laser-guidance system will automatically adjust the missile to a laser target designator, while a millimeter-wave radar seeker allows the weapon to be fired and home in on a moving vehicle by itself. The weapon’s system also allows an operator to switch between laser-guided and radar-guided control modes if the missile needs to take evasive actions to avoid being stopped. The JAGM has an airburst mode and a range of about five miles. The missile also remains effective even in smoke, dust and foggy conditions that might otherwise obscure guidance systems.

If the fragments found at the strike site are in fact those of the JAGM, the advanced and relatively new weapon may further suggest the high-level instruction that ordered the attack on Soleimani, Ryan Morgan concludes. 

The MQ-9 baseline system carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which has a robust suite of visual sensors for targeting. The MTS-B integrates an infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, image-intensified TV camera, laser range finder /designator, and laser illuminator. The full-motion video from each of the imaging sensors can be viewed as separate video streams or fused.

The MQ-9 also incorporates a laser range finder/designator, which precisely designates targets for employment of laser-guided munitions, such as the Guided Bomb Unit-12 Paveway II. The Reaper is also equipped with a synthetic aperture radar to enable future GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions targeting. The MQ-9 can also employ four laser-guided , Air-to-Ground Missile (AGM)-114 Hellfire missiles, which provide highly accurate, low-collateral damage, anti-armor and anti-personnel engagement capabilities.

The MQ-9 Reaper is an armed, multi-mission, medium-altitude, long-endurance remotely piloted aircraft that is employed primarily against dynamic execution targets and secondarily as an intelligence collection asset. 

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An MQ-9 Reaper assigned to the 214th Attack Group, Arizona Air National Guard, flies over Alpena, Mich., July 24, 2019 during a training sortie during exercise Northern Strike 19 at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. (Picture source U.S. Air Force)