Two live U.S. Hellfire missiles were found in a cargo package on-board a Serbian passenger flight from Lebanon to Serbia, according to a report from Business Insider.
According to Serbia’s N1 Television, the missiles were discovered Saturday by a bomb-sniffing dog after the plane landed at Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport, and shipping documents indicate that the final destination was Portland, Oregon. The missiles had been packed in wooden crates. Whatever the source, it’s clear that they either didn’t anticipate standard airport security or didn’t realize that it could detect a Hellfire missile. The missiles have been more or less unchanged since they were developed in 1974, employing a High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead, supported by a Metal Augmented Charge (MAC), which uses a standard shaped-charge explosive in detonation. In other words, they use the same explosive materials as any other bomb, including a solid-fuel rocket.
The AGM-114 Hellfire missile is an air-to-surface missile designed to be fired from a helicopter; the warhead is armor-piercing and was specifically developed for anti-armor use; later models were developed for precision strikes from Predator drones. And although intended for helicopter use, the missile can be fired from multiple air, sea, and ground platforms; using laser guidance, it can easily deliver its payload wherever desired — including inside an armored building.
A single missile can easily destroy an armored car or tank, and they can lock on before or after launch.
Air Serbia is currently assisting in an investigation. The airline indicated that “security and safety are the main priorities for Air Serbia.” A spokesperson for the FBI’s Portland division indicated that the FBI was aware of the Serbian reports but had no information for release. Lockheed Martin, which manufactured the Hellfires, indicated that they were unaware of the situation and referred further inquiries to government officials.
Of course, as Huffington Post notes, it’s not all that unusual to find U.S. Hellfire missiles in that part of the world — the State Department regularly sells them in the Middle East and supplies American allies with them. Most recently, the State Department indicated that a sale of Hellfire II missiles (the variant used by Predator drones) to Lebanon was likely, in June, 2015, and in January, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency approved a sale of 5,000 Hellfires to the Iraqi government to aid the fight against ISIS, to the tune of some $800 million USD.
In this case, though, the Hellfire missiles were clearly out of place. As former State Department and Pentagon staffer Robert Caruso noted on Sunday, there is no legitimate reason for live military hardware to be on-board a commercial passenger flight, and the missiles were likely stolen. From where, nobody is certain.
“No — there are Syria-related things ongoing in Bulgaria (open source) but even that can’t answer this. Prob stolen.”
Aside from Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrup Grumman also manufacture the AGM-114 Hellfire; it’s America’s standard missile, weighing in at about 100 lbs and costing roughly $110,000 apiece. Twenty-seven other nations also make use of the Hellfire. It’s also the weapon of choice for assassination of high-profile targets, including Achmed Yassin, leader of Hamas, in 2004, multiple members of Al Qaeda, and Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi of ISIS in November, 2015.
They can cover just short of five miles at mach 1.3 — faster than sound — and are essentially impossible to intercept, striking a maximum-range target in under 20 seconds.
In other words — let us hope that nobody ever again gets their hands on a Hellfire missile who shouldn’t have one.
Update: A new report from Oregon Live is indicating that the missiles were dummy rounds – and that they were headed to Portland, Maine, not Oregon.
According to an anonymous source speaking for the State Department (State Department protocol requires representatives not be identified by name,) “this was all for training and education.” The dummy rounds were being sent by a third-party contractor, in order that Lebanese aircraft could be fitted to carry the real thing. The appropriate protocols were being followed for return of the missiles – but when found by Serbian authorities, they naturally acted with “an abundance of caution.”
It remains unclear why a sniffer dog would have found dummy rounds in the first place, or how much of the State Department’s story is the truth – but if nothing else, it serves to remind us all of the importance of communication when moving what appears to be military hardware.
[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]