U.S. Marines Are Launching Thermobaric Missiles in Libya
Leathernecks fried a hundred targets in a month
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Since Aug. 1, 2016, the U.S. Marine Corps has launched hundreds of air strikes targeting Islamic State terrorists in Libya. One photographs suggests the leathernecks have deployed a particular deadly type of weapon — a thermobaric Hellfire missile.
Although American troops have been actively involved in Libya for at least the past five years, the Pentagon kicked off the latest aerial campaign ostensibly to prevent Islamic State from taking over the coastal city of Sirte.
Amid the civil strife that has plagued the country since an international coalition helped rebels topple dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Islamic State was able to establish a foothold and take on other armed groups.
“Over the past 30 days, the operations we’ve carried out against terrorists in Sirte have enabled the Libyan forces to take back much of their city from the enemy,” Marine colonel Todd Simmons, in charge of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, boasted to U.S. Navy reporters earlier in September 2016.
“As long as we are called to do so, we will continue to provide precision air support,” Simmons said.
The 22nd MEU controls the AV-8B Harrier jump jets and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunships on board the Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Wasp off the Libyan coast. In addition, the unit has a contingent of infantry and other ground troops that have not participated in the operation.
Between August and mid-September 2016, Marine jump jets and gunships flew nearly 150 missions.
Initially, the bulk of the missions involved Harriers carrying GPS-guided bombs. In addition, U.S. Air Force drones fired some laser-guided Hellfire missiles during the initial strikes.
However, the 22nd’s air component only has six Harriers on hand. So, later in August, the Super Cobras joined in the campaign.
“We’re a flexible and lethal maritime force here to help the Libyan people rid Sirte of ISIL,” Capt. F. Byron Ogden, the head of the Navy’s Amphibious Squadron Six, declared to the service’s reporters in September 2016, using a common acronym for Islamic State. “Air strikes … have taken out ISIL weaponry, fighting positions and improvised explosive devises.”
Armed with a 20-millimeter Gatling cannon under the nose, the AH-1 can also carry rockets and Hellfire missiles on small wings on either side of the fuselage. Based on the image above, the copters appear to be flying with a mix of regular missiles and versions fitted with thermobaric warheads.
Stenciling reading “K2” is visible on the nose of one missile, most likely referring to the AGM-114K-2 Hellfire II. Since December 1994, the K has been the standard variant for U.S. Army and Marine gunships.
The 100-pound missile can hit targets more than five and half miles away. The primary job of the 20-pound tandem warhead is to bust through tank armor.
Of course, the weapon can be just as useful for taking out other vehicles, bunkers and other “hard” targets. Unlike earlier versions, the K-2’s explosive is an “insensitive” mixture, meaning it’s less likely to accidentally explode.
Pairing two types of weapons makes sense given the Libyan battlefield. In the first strikes, American fliers blew up two captured tanks.
In addition, Islamic State has taken to turning armored vehicles and trucks into rolling suicide bombs. The anti-armor Hellfires are perfect for blasting those vehicles.
But the vast majority of targets have been smaller targets such as rocket launchers, machine gun nests and other nebulous “fighting positions.” In strikes on these targets, aircraft have been seen carrying Hellfires with the “N5” marking.
The AGM-114N-5s are 10 pounds heavier, slightly longer and have a thermobaric payload. This core is an explosive charge wrapped in an outer shell full of aluminum powder.
“Several candidate thermobaric warhead fills were tested and assessed during final development,” Ronald Sega, then the Pentagon’s Director of Defense Research and Engineering, told senators on March 9, 2005. “The chemical mix selected is substantially more effective in attacks against enclosed structures than the current Hellfire blast and fragment variants.”
When this kind of Hellfire hits its target, it produces a large and extremely hot blast. If the warhead goes off inside a confined area, the shock wave and blast end up at least partially contained, causing even more damage.
To maximum the destruction, crews can set the fuze to wait long enough for the missile to plow through a wall or patch of earth before exploding. As a result, the Ns are best suited to taking out enemy troops, both in the open and inside bunkers, caves, trenches and other fortifications. According to the Army, the weapons will work against radar dishes, radio towers and bridges, too.
The Pentagon sent the first N-model Hellfires to troops in Iraq between 2004 and 2005. Since then, the weapon has become the default “multi-purpose” version of the missile.
And pictures show the gunships carrying just two missiles on some missions, likely to reduce weight and conserve fuel. With a range of only 350 miles, the Cobras need Wasp to stay close to shore just to reach targets in Sirte. With the two types of Hellfires, the Marine pilots have the best options for whatever threats they encounter over land.
“Forces supporting the Government of National Accord continue to take the fight to ISIL with the help of U.S. air power,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook told reporters on Aug. 25, 2016. “They continue to make progress in liberating the city [of Sirte] from ISIL’s control.”
Unless the terrorists in Libya capture additional tanks or other armored vehicles, the themobaric Hellfires will continue to be an important part of those strikes in the weeks to come.