The Mystery of the Pentagon's Missing-in-the-Mail Hellfire Missiles
March 23, 2016
Willamette Week & CNBC News & CounterPunch
The news traveling across wire services on March 13 was bizarre and alarming: Bomb-sniffing dogs had found two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles traveling as cargo on a Serbian passenger jet. Destined for Portland, Maine, they instead were directed to Portland, Oregon. The story of the miss-mailed missiles mirrored another tale: A US Hellfire missile, that apparently fell into the hands of the Cuban government in 2014, was recently returned to the US on January 7, 2016.
Here's What the Media Got Wrong
About Portland-Bound Hellfire Missiles
There are known knowns, and known unknowns, and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Jenna Mulligan / Willamette Week
(March 16, 2016) -- The news traveling across wire services and Twitter feeds March 13 was bizarre and alarming: Bomb-sniffing dogs had found two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles with explosive warheads on a passenger jet in Serbia.
The missiles, made by Lockheed Martin, were shipped from Beirut, Lebanon, and packed inside a coffin. Destination? Portland, Ore.
Little of that report now appears to be true.
The missiles were by all accounts Hellfire models, found on an Air Serbia jet in Belgrade. They were sent from Lebanon in cargo, and found by dogs. But all other facts have been muddied in translation and conflicting reports.
Here's what we know we don't know.
1. The missiles weren't being shipped to Portland, Ore.
They were headed for Portland, Maine, via London. "The reports that the items were headed to Oregon are incorrect," says Beth Ann Steele, spokeswoman for the FBI's Portland, Ore., office. This is hardly the first time somebody mixed up the two Portlands -- but it's unclear who made the mistake: Serbian airport security, Serbian cable television, or American media translating the Belgrade reports.
2. The missiles weren't made by Lockheed Martin.
Instead, they were manufactured by the private company Orbital ATK, which has no offices in the Pacific Northwest. Orbital's main production occurs in Rocket Center, W.Va. Orbital ATK and the US Department of Defense have been working together for a year on a project to supply the Lebanese air force with unarmed versions of AGM-114 Hellfire missiles for training exercises.
3. The missiles were not armed.
The Lebanese and US governments say the Hellfires were "dummies" -- missiles without explosive warheads. "I can absolutely assure you these are not explosive," says David McKeeby, public affairs specialist at the US Department of State. "The fact of the matter is that they're not really missiles, only training devices. There is no warhead, no fuse, no rocket. It's like throwing a chair as a weapon."
Why did bomb-sniffing dogs detect an unarmed missile? I could completely make up reasons that might possibly sound plausible, but, well, that part of the story doesn't make a lot of sense.
Because is doesn't take a huge quantity of explosives for a dog to respond. I would bet that the folks who were handling the training versions of the missiles were handling other ordnance as part of their jobs and had trace amounts of explosives on their clothing and other equipment. They then went into training with these missiles and transferred trace amount of explosives to them.
I would also bet that they were used and secured in areas where live munitions were stored and used. These are training devices used by an active military, nothing surprising about the possibility of an unarmed missile having trace amounts of explosives on it.
Lebanon: Missiles on Serbian Flight Were for Training
(March 14, 2016) -- The Lebanese army says two missiles found on a passenger flight from Lebanon to Serbia were used for training and did not contain any explosives. Monday's announcement came after Serbia's authorities began investigating reports that a cargo package bound for the United States containing two missiles with explosive warheads was found on the flight.
The army says the missiles were being sent to the American company that produced them. It says the return was in accordance "with administrative and legal measures after the training ended."
On Sunday, Serbia's N1 television said the package with two guided armor-piercing missiles was discovered Saturday by a sniffer dog after an Air Serbia flight landed at Belgrade airport. The American-made projectiles can be fired from air, sea or ground platforms.
Serbian media said documents listed the final destination for the AGM-114 Hellfire missiles as Portland, Oregon.
N1 television said the package with two guided armor-piercing missiles was discovered Saturday by a sniffer dog after an Air Serbia flight from Beirut landed at Belgrade airport.
The US Lost a Hellfire Missile. Cuba Returned It
(February 14, 2016) -- Cuba has returned a dummy United States Hellfire missile that was mistakenly shipped there from Europe in 2014, American and Cuban officials said Saturday.
The Hellfire is a laser-guided, air-to-surface missile that weighs about 100 pounds. Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, it can be deployed from an attack helicopter like the Apache or an unmanned drone like the Predator.
The weapon returned by Cuba was an inert training missile that was inadvertently sent to the island from Europe, where it was used in a NATO training exercise.
It did not contain explosives, but the device's diversion raised concerns that Cuba could share technology with potential American adversaries like North Korea or Russia. It had an incomplete guidance section and no operational seeker head, warhead, fusing system or rocket motor.
''The inert training missile has been returned with the cooperation of the Cuban government,'' a State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, said. He declined to elaborate, but he credited the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba for allowing Washington to engage Havana ''on issues of mutual interest.''
American officials had been trying to recoup the missile for several months. The shipping error was attributed to Lockheed's freight forwarders, but the United States said last month that it was working with the manufacturer to get the missile back.
In a statement, the Cuban government confirmed the return of the missile and said that customs inspectors had discovered it while conducting a routine inspection of cargo that had arrived on a flight from Paris.
The government statement said the missile had come to Cuba as a result of ''error or mishandling'' in its country of origin. ''For Cuban authorities, the arrival in the country of US-made military equipment that hadn't been declared as such on the cargo manifesto was worrying,'' the government said.
The equipment was ''duly conserved and taken care of'' and once the United States government officially informed Cuba that the missile had been shipped there by mistake and the United States wanted to recover it, Cuba began proceedings to return the missile, the government said.
Hellfire Missile Shipped to Cuba Targets US/Cuban Relations
David Urra / CounterPunch
(January 12, 2016) -- On Thursday, January 7, 2016, the date known in Latin culture as the one when the three Kings of the traditional Christian nativity story drop in on children, bearing gifts, the Wall Street Journal published the news that a very special gift had been dropped in Cuba: a made-in-the-USA air-to-ground Hellfire missile.
Presumably, the offering would have delighted Cuba's president, as he might finally having a look inside yet another one of the instruments that the US had prepared for doing away with Cuba's Castros.
But what really lies beneath this extraordinary journalistic scoop brought to light by Devlin Barrett and Gordon Lubold more than 19 months after it actually took place?
After closely reading the article and the comments it has engendered, including those from well-known politicians like John McCain, a number of questions surface that must be evaluated as part of any meaningful analysis.
First, why is this story coming to light only now, when the events are said to have taken place two years ago, in the first half of 2014? Why does the story, filled with quotes from unnamed officials and "people familiar with the case" have so many contradictions and lack of detail?
How can the "sensitive" military hardware by an irresponsible network of private shippers be explained? Is the Hellfire such an important piece of military technology that it would sink the US armed forces if it fell into enemy hands? Would Russia, Iran, North Korea or China have any interest in such technology?
Would the Cubans achieve any concrete benefit from turning over such an "advanced" instrument to any of the countries or powers fighting against US troops the world over?
Finally, could the publication of this article, suggesting on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Cuba might have directed an intelligence operation to steal such prized military technology, possibly be related to this very delicate moment in US/ Cuban relations?
In order to offer a proper analysis, a number of sources must be consulted in order to corroborate facts, and this is what this article will attempt to address.
For starters, let's examine the contradictory evidence presented by the unnamed sources.
According to Lockheed Martin, the Hellfire's manufacturer, a missile with an inert (dummy) warhead was sent to Spain, to be used in NATO exercises. No mention is made of how the missile was to be used in these maneuvers.
According to missile experts, there are three possible uses for such missiles in practice maneuvers:
1. To be used in exercises where they are manually placed in their delivery devices (helicopters, planes, or drones) to practice combat readiness.
2. To be launched against fictitious targets, in which case, active warheads are generally employed, in order to evaluate their battlefield effectiveness.
3. To be used as targets themselves, standing in for airborne objects in anti-aircraft target practice and radio-electronic interference exercises, simulating real conditions as closely as possible.
If we take the WSJ journalists at their word, the missile was to have returned to the US from Germany after it was used, which eliminates alternatives 2 and 3, because in either of those cases the missile would have been destroyed during practice.
Considering that option number 1 is the only possible variant, a reasonable doubt suddenly stands out: Does it make any practical sense to send missiles to Spain from Orlando, Florida for the sole purpose of allowing soldiers to physically handle them between the warehouses and the aircraft, and vice versa?
Wouldn't it make more sense to use the missiles already onsite in Germany and Spain, where the US has a huge force, which ought to have plenty of missiles on hand for practice? There it would be simply a matter of removing the explosive charge and replacing it with an inert one, which could be sent from the US if necessary.
Is it possible that the US does not have enough storage space to keep these missiles at its multiple bases in Rota, Spain, or Germany, and as a result is forced to send them all the way back to the US?
Basic reasoning shows that the story regarding the objective behind the missile's transfer is hardly credible.
Another element that sheds light on the affair has to do with the strange network of private and state-affiliated companies that handle this kind of cargo. From what we can observe, apparently missiles, and presumably other kinds of weapons as well, are being transported by a non-military network where the possibility of loss or mis-shipment would be entirely natural.
According to data included by the WSJ journalists themselves, "Each year, there are about 1,500 disclosures of potential violations to the Arms Export Control Act," some of which certainly must include missiles. According to an unnamed State Department official, the frequency of mis-shipments is due to "the amount and volume of the defense trade."
On this point, inevitable questions arise. How is it possible that the United States, which exports billions of dollars worth of weapons annualy, could have such a vulnerable distribution system, risking not only its technology but the possibility that these weapons could fall into enemy hands?
Considering the enormous US military budget and the countless means available to the country's armed forces, why is this kind of transportation not exclusively handled by the military, to guard against such an occurrence?
Is it possible that these shipments are not accurately labeled, complete with Packing Lists, to avoid the possibility of deviation from their intended route, ending up wherever?
The takeaway impression is that such an irresponsible "distribution system" is designed to be used in the supply of US troops and their allies through the world, including undeclared ones.
But even if that were so, how could properly identified cargo have passed through so many hands without anyone catching the error? The story is that after having been "used" in Spain, the missile should have been sent to Germany in order to travel back to the US In practice, according to the WSJ, the missile went instead to France in order to wind up in Cuba.
And if this is so, then there must have been multiple errors. First in Spain, where it was sent to France instead of Germany. Second in France where no-one realized that Paris was not its destination. But finally in France again, where the cargo which was not carrying the correct documentation, was sent to another destination not on the consignment list.
Apparently the only people who made no error here were the Cubans, who immediately identified the errant cargo and confiscated it. Is it possible that Cuba's cargo control is more efficient than that of Spain or France?
Although the article does not offer specific dates, the missile is said to have gone "missing" between January and June of 2014. Can it be true that even now the investigation still has not concluded, with the story now being presented to us as though it has just taken place? We're talking about a lost missile, not canned peaches, passing through countries that are US allies.
But the most interesting part are the speculations that Barrett and Lubold subtly slip into the story.
The article does not begin by outlining the facts, but by speculating that the arrival of the Hellfire missile in Cuba might have been the work of a Cuban intelligence operation.
After clarifying that the missile did not have an explosive charge – possibly to avoid the scandal that would be unleashed if US authorities were seen to be sending explosive cargo around the world in the cargo bays of civilian aircraft – it is suggested that the Hellfire contains sensitive technology that Cuba might turn over to countries in conflict with the US: Russia, China, Iran or North Korea.
This is where the article's true intentions are revealed.
To begin with, we must point out something which the reporters surely know but did not include in their article. The Hellfire is already obsolete. Current reports from the US military press mention that in August of 2015, the decision was made to develop Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles (JAGM) in order to retire not only the already obsolete Hellfire II, but also the TOW (BGM-71) and Maverick (AGM-65) missiles.
The problem is that the Hellfire has a laser targeting system that is highly vulnerable when smoke or dust are present, something quite common on the battlefield. In addition, the aircraft carrying the missile must keep the objective in sight, as opposed to launching and swiftly leaving the area.
The new JAGM has a dual targeting system which adds highly precise "fire-and-forget" millimeter wave radar (MWM) to a semi-active laser guidance system, making it more effective under real combat conditions. It also will allow for carriers to launch the missile and leave the objective behind, taking the necessary precautions to avoid being intercepted.
At this point, one must ask the question: why would Russia and China or other countries have any interest in a technology that has already been surpassed by better technology and that they would not face in any potential operating theater?
The Russians already have the Vijr-1 in their arsenal, far superior to the Hellfires, as well as the X-29 missile group, similar to the Hellfires and widely used in Afghanistan and Syria.
A brief comparison of the characteristics of the two:
Hellfire: Length: 1.8 m, Diameter: 178 mm, Weight: 50 kg, Range: 8 kms, Velocity: 425 m/seg, Guidance: Semi-active laser, Explosive charge: 8 kg.
VIJR: Length: 2.75 m, Diameter: 130 mm, Weight: 45 kg, Range: 10 kms, Velocity: 610 m/seg, Guidance: Dual, Explosive charge: unknown.
As can be observed, there are evident differences between the Vijr-1, in active use, and the Hellfire II. If we add that the effectiveness co-efficients of the already proven Vijr-1 are around .08 and those of the Hellfire do not exceed .04, then we can conclude that the Russians will not learn anything from any sensors or technology provided by the Cubans, were they to re-gift them the Hellfire received from the United States. So any Cuban ideas about negotiating a juicy contract through the sale of Hellfire technology will have to be abandoned.
Meanwhile, the delivery of this technology to countries like Iran or North Korea would do nothing at all to improve on the means already in their posession, while exacting a very high political cost on the Cubans.
It would be senseless to think that after 55 years of difficult struggle against the world's largest superpower ever, Cuban leaders would toss overboard the possibility of an end to the embargo that weighs so heavily on their shoulders, in order to deliver an obsolete missile to some unknown country facing off against the Americans.
Readers may be unaware that this is not the first incident of this sort, where a US weapon has fallen into Cuban hands for one reason or another. The U-2 downed by Soviet forces during the Missile Crisis was taken to the Soviet Union where it underwent reverse engineering.
In the 1980's, there was an MK-43 torpedo that was dropped on the Cuban coastline just off Holguin, with technology that was little known in the socialist camp at the time. This was also sent to the Soviets for analysis.
But now the situation is completely different. The military and political ties in place between Cuba and those countries during those years no longer exist.
What is indeed very interesting is the irresponsible logistics network that the US is using to distribute its military hardware, made up of civilian airlines, private freight forwarders, and a very loose system of control that takes months to detect the loss of something as sensitive as weapons.
Could it have been designed this way intentionally, in order to justify the huge quantities of weapons that terrorist groups worldwide are receiving?
In a report recently published by Sky News, accompanied by a video from the Islamic State, engineers working for this terrorist organization are shown working with a ground-to-air missile capable of downing civilian aircraft and drones.
The video shows equipment with high technology, which immediately generates the obvious question: how are they acquiring it if US authorities claim to be controlling these weapons so tightly?
According to the report, the IS could make use of a massive supply of missiles considered obsolete by the West, launching them against civilian airliners.
Could it be that the Cuban Hellfire was on the list of weapons that have miraculously ended up in terrorist hands, and a French dispatcher took advantage of the chance to ship this one to yet another "terrorist" country, following the pattern set by the US?
It's difficult to say who is behind the WSJ article, so conveniently published just at the moment when Cuban – US relations are being relaunched, with no shortage of difficulties. It would not be the first time that the interests which control the US mass media would have launched this kind of disinformation campaign.
It's possible that nothing at all will occur with the Cuban Hellfire, but many readers will still be left with the impression that Cuba is hostile to the United States, when the opposite has been resoundingly demonstrated. President Obama's efforts to move forward in reestablishing relations with Cuba could be torpedoed as a result.
Not only is there no way the Cubans can take advantage of this "miraculous" technology offered by the US, but it is also not in their interest. They already have the necessary means for their defense, and waging war on the US is not among the country's priorities.
Who is really behind the Cuban Hellfire? Soon we'll know. Early reactions indicate that this conveniently timed revelation is related to the current state of relations between Cuba and the United States.
The Cuban Hellfire is aimed squarely at this target, and at damaging the efforts that the presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro have decided to undertake to improve relations. Apparently there are some people who still do not understand that come what may, this process is irreversible.
David Urra is a graduate of the Caspian S.M. Kirov Superior Naval Academy in Baku. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.