During 2016, U.S. Commandos Fired Nearly Two of These Missiles Every Day
Small Griffins were a weapon of choice
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
In 2016, American aircraft lobbed more than 25,000 bombs and missiles at targets in seven countries, according to a detailed analysis by Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson at the Council on Foreign Relations. With limited information to start with, “this estimate is undoubtedly low,” they concluded.
Part of the problem, is that the Pentagon often only reports individual “strikes,” which can involve one plane dropping one bomb or multiple aircraft releasing dozens of weapons. U.S. officials don’t always offer up the total number of bombs or missiles — or what types — American troops tossed at terrorists or militants in war zones around the world.
But the Pentagon does have to buy these weapons and explain to lawmakers why it needs them. According to official budget data, for at least some part of 2016, American commandos were firing an average of nearly two AGM-176 Griffin missiles every day.
In June 2016, the Pentagon asked Congress to give U.S. Special Operations Command an extra $17 million toward buying 190 “Stand-Off Precision Guided Munitions,” or SOPGMs. “This ordnance is expending at the rate of 56 per month,” it noted in the request, no doubt to emphasize the urgency of the requirement.
That’s almost two missiles per day. If that average held for the whole year and the total was part of Zenko and Wilson’s final tally, these weapons alone would account for more than two percent of all American strikes in 2016.
As of 2017, the SOPGM program covered funds to buy a number of laser- and GPS-guided bombs and missiles and development new weapons. This particular purchase was for AGM-176s, Ken McGraw, a Special Operations Command spokesman, told War Is Boring in an email.
Raytheon began producing the first generation Griffins in 2008. The laser- or GPS-guided mini-missile was nearly 20 inches shorter than the ubiquitous Hellfire and less than half the weight. But despite its diminutive size, depending on how high the aircraft firing it was flying, the weapon could still hit targets more than 12 miles away.
Initially, the Massachusetts-headquartered defense contractor sold the weapon together with backward-ejecting launchers. Both the U.S. Air Force’s commandos and U.S. Marine Corps’ aviators quickly added the missiles to their C-130-based gunships.
In 2008, Aviation Week reported an “unidentified customer” was firing the small weapons from the MQ-1 Predator drone. At the same time, Raytheon had started cooking up an improved, forward-firing version — later dubbed Griffin B — and launchers for drones, warships and ground vehicles.
By 2010, the Air Force had officially started work getting the precision guided munitions working on both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 Reaper pilotless attackers. Over the next six years, the Pentagon and Raytheon continued to improve the Griffins, adding improved warheads, more sensitive fuzes and better guidance equipment.
With a tiny 13-pound warhead, the missiles offered an ideal tool for precision attacks — including targeted strikes against individual terrorists — in areas full of innocent civilians. In 2015, American commandos launched more than 700 of the weapons in total, a rate actually higher than the 56 per month noted in 2016, according to an official briefing.
In it’s 2016 request, the Pentagon’s top commando headquarters said it wanted the extra weapons specifically for combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the “Horn of Africa” — likely Somalia. We don’t know how many particular weapons American drones or gunships fired in each country.
The “request was for the time period January 2016 through December 2016,” McGraw said. “We do not breakout expenditures by the individual operations.”
Throughout 2016, the Pentagon publicly announced less than 15 targeted strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, plus an additional three strikes of differing kinds in Somalia. U.S. Central Command and U.S. Africa Command reported additional strikes in those four countries.
We know that the Air Force commandos have employed both drones and AC-130 gunships to support elite troops on the ground in general and blast individual militants. However, even if American aviators used multiple Griffins in each instance, these missions alone would not have warranted firing 56 missiles every month.
It is possible that some of the AGM-176s missed their intended targets. But more likely, commandos were launching them on a far more regular basis during a wide variety of missions.
Based on the official information, documents War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and other reports, it is clear that the Pentagon routinely flies manned and unmanned aircraft capable of carrying Griffins over Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia. Much of this activity appeared linked to targeted strikes.
However, the Long War Journal cataloged at least 14 aerial attacks in Somalia alone in 2016. This total included a number of “self-defense” strikes U.S. forces officially flew to protect American commandos and African peacekeepers.
In March 2016, the Air Force released video — seen above — of an AC-130W Stinger II gunship refueling during an unspecified mission over Iraq. Earlier that month, a small, secretive spy plane crashed in the country, further indicating American commandos were actively working with Iraqi and Kurdish troops battling Islamic State.
On Jan. 8, 2017, elite U.S. troops launched a rare “kill or capture” mission in Syria against one of the terrorist group’s leaders. More than a year earlier, a U.S. Army Delta Force soldier died during a similar raid on an Islamic State-run prison in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, in October 2016, militants killed an Army Green Beret with a road-side bomb. The Pentagon said American commandos were searching for Islamic State members in the Central Asian country at the time.
These incidents and others are likely just a small snapshot of the Pentagon’s secretive, day-to-day missions. The need to fire off almost two Griffins every day implies a great deal of fighting.
If the trend continues, American commandos could use up another 700 or more of the tiny missiles in 2017 and need to buy even more.