The legendary Hellfire missile is being replaced by the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile.

The US Army approved the jagm for full rate production.

The Hellfire's low-cost, high-accuracy legacy is what the new weapon system is built upon.

The result is one missile that can do the job of both Hellfire missiles.

Living up to the legacy of the Hellfire

YAH-64 Apache helicopter prototype AGM-114A Hellfire missiles
A YAH-64 Apache prototype armed with AGM-114A Hellfire missiles in March 1982.
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The need for an effective anti-tank weapon for American helicopter pilots necessitated the creation of the Hellfire missile in the 70s.

Hellfire began as an abbreviation for "Heliborne, Laser, Fire and Forget Missile" The weapon was incorporated into a variety of platforms.

Helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, watercraft, and even land-based weapons are some of the modern versions of the Hellfire.

The R9X, a Hellfire missile that swaps its warhead for a set of deployable 18-inch blades, was developed because of the incredible accuracy of these weapons. This weapon has only been used by intelligence and special operations agencies.

The Hellfire family includes the Hellfire Romeo and the Longbow Hellfire.

SH-60 helicopter with AGM-1148 Hellfire missiles on USS John F. Kennedy
An SH-60 helicopter armed with AGM-1148 Hellfire missiles aboard USS John F. Kennedy in March 2002.
Marcelino Caswell/US Navy/Getty Images

Two missiles have several elements. They differ greatly when it comes to targeting, forcing users to keep separate inventories of each. The Joint Air-to-Ground Missile is a new weapon.

The Hellfire Romeo uses a Semi-Active Laser (SAL) Guidance system to deliver 20 pounds of explosives to targets more than 6 miles away. It is the primary air-to-surface weapon for a number of platforms, including the Army's Apache, the Marine Corps' Super Cobra, and the Air Force's long-loitering drones.

The AGM-114L Longbow is a missile that swaps out the laser guidance system for a millimeter wave radar apparatus that allows the missile to offer high-accuracy performance at beyond-line-of-sight ranges.

The Longbow is the main anti-tank weapon system used by the Apache. The Longbow missile ceased production in 2005.

The AGM-179 JAGM pulls double duty to see through enemy defenses

AGM-114L Longbow Hellfire missile launches littoral combat ship
US Navy littoral combat ship USS Montgomery launches an AGM-114L Longbow on May 12.
US Navy/Lt.j.g. Samuel Hardgrove

Unlike the Hellfire Romeo and Longbow missiles, the AGM-179JAGM has a dual-mode seeker that combines both semi-active laser and millimeter wave radar sensors.

"It combines the Hellfire Romeo and Longbow options into a single missile," Lockheed Martin's JAGM program director, Joey Drake, told Sandboxx News.

"So one missile, multiple platforms, multiple missions for all the services," he added.

Until now, pilots and other operators had to make a decision about how to engage a target using Hellfire missiles.

The Longbow's millimeter-wave radar is more effective than the Romeo's laser targeting system when it has a direct line of sight.

The pilots can engage targets with the same missile regardless of environment or situation if they choose to.

If the missile is relying on its semi- active laser seeker to close with a target and suddenly finds its view obscured by smoke, it will switch over to the millimeter-wave radar sensor without the pilot's input.

"The millimeter-wave capability allows us to ignore those things that try to distract us as we navigate our way to engage the target," Drake explained.

"So no matter what they do in terms of smoke or other feature sets that might be on those platforms to try to divert our attention, we ensure that the mission gets completed."

The JAGM offers more capability and less cost

gulf weapons hellfire
An AGM-114 Hellfire missile on a US Air Force MQ-1L drone in June 2004.
TSGT Scott Reed, U.S. Air Force, Wikipedia

It's a significant cost-saving to have one missile that can do two jobs.

It will require very little training for ground crews and pilots because it shares a lot with the Hellfires it will replace.

It also means cutting down on the number of weapons units that need to be used.

"From a pure logistics perspective, that's one less missile in inventory that you have to logistically maintain," Drake told Sandboxx News.

"And because it's used across the various services, it enables those resources to be flexibly used within the battlefield," he added.

NATO adopted the 5.56mm round in 1980.

In the event of war, a single round used by all member states made it cheaper and easier to procure and distribute weapons. If Germany has enough for the fight, it's simple to transfer it to America.

Similar benefits are offered for America's military branches. Army, Marine, and Air Force units all use the same missile system. In a pinch, an Army Apache unit in need could even draw from a nearby Air Force Reaper unit with a surplus, until more bombs could be delivered.

Great-power competition is all about new tech … until the fighting starts. Then it's about efficiency

A US airmen checks an AGM-114 Hellfire II missile.
US Air Force

When it comes to new defense developments, the majority of attention is given to hypersonic missiles and drones, but there is a glimpse into the economically efficient near-future of warfare.

A large-scale conflict with a near-peer like China is often seen as the "big game" for systems like $100 million boost-glide weapons and sleek next- generation stealth fighters.

The cutting-edge nature of these technologies makes their use limited in a fight.

The US Air Force has more F-35As in service than any other country, but the majority of America's fighter fleets are older fourth- generation jets.

apache hellfire
An Apache helicopter fires a Hellfire missile.

More than 450 F-15s and a thousand F-16s were flying alongside the 272 F-35As. China's 1,800 fighters include just 150 or fewer stealth jets, with 800 or so fourth- generation fighters and the rest from older stock.

The efficient use of available systems is what will determine the outcome of the fight. Finding new and creative ways to leverage existing systems is equally important as fielding updated and upgraded low-cost weapons.

The Air Force Research Lab's Rapid Dragon, which aims to leverage existing cargo aircraft to deploy large volleys of cruise missiles, is one of the programs that bridges the gap between forward-leaning tech that's too expensive to field in volume and legacy systems that are aging.

Financial attrition is a devastating weapon in large scale warfare. America can make sure it has the strength it needs to win today's fights while still being able to win tomorrow's.