FEATURE | What the hell are Hellfire missiles?

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the US State Department issued a certification last April 30 approving the Duterte government’s request to buy P76.5 billion ($1.5 billion) worth of war matériel and services. Part of the arms deal is the procurement of 200 AGM-114 Hellfire II missiles.

The AGM-114 Hellfire II, one of most expensive types of missiles in the world, is a laser-guided missile that was developed primarily for air-to-surface anti-tank use. It weighs 50 kilograms, has a range of 8 kilometers and a speed of 1,593 kilometers per hour. It is usually deployed from attack helicopters, planes and drones, but can also be launched from waterborne and land-based platforms. The most common platform is the AH-64 Apache helicopter which has a missile capacity of 16 rounds.

Excessive force

Although originally developed to burn through tank armors, Hellfire II payloads are now also being used against plain human targets. With multifunction warheads, Hellfire II missiles are designed to deal excessive and indiscriminate large-scale damage to pulverize not only targets but also the surrounding environment, infrastructures and even civilians.

Such was the case in the US-supported Hellfire airstrikes of Israel in Gaza in 2008 and 2009 wherein about 1,300 Palestinians were killed and more than 4,000 were injured, and billions of dollars worth of infrastructures destroyed, leaving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians homeless. On March 16, 2017, the US also launched Hellfire airstrikes using two Reaper drones against a mosque in Aleppo, Syria killing 49 civilians and injuring more than 100.

Historically, older variants of Hellfires were extensively used by the US in mounting its brutal wars of aggression and interventionist campaigns across the globe including the Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War and the Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

On January 3 earlier this year, on orders of US Pres. Donald Trump, the US military also deployed four Hellfire missiles using an MQ-9 Reaper drone in Baghdad, Iraq to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was then the highest military official in Iran. The missiles blew up his convoy, killing him along with nine other Iranian and Iraqi officials.

The Hague Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Art. 23) explicitly prohibits the use of indiscriminate weapons or methods of combat “that are apt to cause unnecessary suffering or superfluous injury” or “inflict excessive incidental harm on civilians or civilian objects.

Similarly, the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (CARHRIHL), Art 4., prohibits “indiscriminate aerial bombardment, strafing, artillery fire, mortar fire, arson, bulldozing and other similar forms of destroying lives and properties” of civilians. The CARHRIHL was cosigned by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines in 1998.

Extravagant deadly toys

Each AGM-114 Hellfire II missile costs P5.08 million ($99,600). This means that the Duterte regime is set to spend up to P1.02 billion ($19.92 million) to complete the procurement of 200 payloads. Based on the contract, the Duterte regime is also set to purchase six AH-64E Apache attack helicopters worth P1.81 billion ($35.5 million) each or a total of P10.86 billion ($213 million).

On top of these, the P76.5-billion procurement deal also covers the procurement of 300 Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) All-up Rounds; 1,700 APKWS Guidance Section; 200 FIM-92H Stinger missiles; 18 M2G1 rocket launchers; 18 Stinger missile launchers; 18 M299 missile launchers; 5,000 2.75-inch rockets; 80,000 30-mm rounds training devices, and 6 M230E1+M139 AWS automatic guns, among others.

The aforementioned matériel are all manufactured by US companies Lockheed Martin Corporation and The Boeing Company. These companies form part of what is known as the military industrial complex of big monopoly capitalists who make billions of dollars in profit in US wars of aggression and proxy wars around the globe.

Not only are these war toys costly in themselves, but so is the operation of AH-64E Apache attack helicopters. The flight cost per hour for each helicopter is P366,027 ($7,177).

Based on the procurement contract, the operation of 6 helicopters, assuming that these are flown by the AFP for 250 hours each annually, will cost the Filipino people up to P549.04 billion ($10.81 million) per year. The cost of maintaining these helicopters in terms from spare parts to hangar space will also run up to millions of pesos.

Ineffective against guerrilla warfare

The procurement program, which was made under the AFP modernization program, primarily aims to boost Duterte’s arsenal in a vain attempt to fulfill his promise to decimate the armed revolutionary movement before the end of his term.

The Communist Party of the Philippines, however, pointed out on Monday that using these weapons and ammunition for conducting aerial bombardment and strafing is ineffective against highly mobile guerrilla units. It noted that in the past, the use of oversized cannons and helicopter gunships has only resulted in indiscriminate destruction of communities and the environment, endangered people’s lives and livelihood, and caused psychological trauma especially on children.

Last year on October 26, the Joint Task Force Storm of the Armed Forces of the Philippines Central Command and 8th ID launched an indiscriminate airstrike using FA-50 fighter jets in Barangay Caputoan, Las Navas, Northern Samar. Three 500-pound bombs were dropped and exploded just a kilometer away from the village center, destroying the farmlands of at least 13 families, as well as their huts and rice which they had recently harvested. This resulted in the forcible evacuation of more than 24 families. To justify its atrocity, the military falsely reported that it launched a “surgical airstike” against an NPA encampment.

Such attacks are highly ineffective against NPA units which take advantage of heavy foliage as cover. The loud engines of helicopters, drones and other aerial assets of the AFP also announce their arrival giving the NPA ample opportunity to maneuver even before bombs or rockets are launched.