The appearance of a mystery Hellfire missile on an Israeli AH-64D Apache attack helicopter in publicity material released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has puzzled observers.
Based on the color of the ‘bands’ and the color scheme of the overall missile, it could either be a thermobaric warhead-armed version for destroying Hamas’s underground infrastructure or an incendiary explosive.
A month into the Israel-Hamas war, Tel Aviv has finally launched a ground operation in Gaza. It has pushed into the Gaza Strip from three points, two from the north and one cutting across the middle of the strip. And in doing so, it claims to have “encircled” Gaza City and isolated Hamas.
For now, the operations look like a limited incursion to destroy some of the Palestinian armed resistance group’s overground and underground infrastructure. But the destruction of the outfit is unrealistic since military experts have noted how Hamas had been preparing for this kind of war for 15 years, building a dense ‘defense in depth’ that integrates underground, ground-level, and aboveground fortifications.”
Apaches In Action
IDF publicity materials show tanks and troops going along coastal roads, firing on buildings, and discovering several rockets and weapons caches hidden underground. Hamas’s military wing, the Al Qassam Brigades, also shows fighters popping out of tunnels in bushes and urban areas and firing anti-tank rockets or Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) at close range on Merkava tanks.
The Apaches fit into the larger urban warfare scheme of things. It can fire missiles at overground targets like buildings, where the Hellfire enters through a window. Depending on the warhead mode selected, it explodes in the air or hits a wall, killing all fighters inside that might be firing through windows.
But the last time this happened was during battles like Fallujah or Ramadi during the US occupation of Iraq, where there was no underground network of tunnels. How the Apaches and the new mystery Hellfire might impact this odd battlefield remains to be seen. But, either the incendiary or thermobaric missile managing to enter a Hamas tunnel will cause terrible devastation to its underground infrastructure.
Mystery Hellfire with Red Band
On November 4, the Israeli Air Force posted a photo on its official handle on X (formerly Twitter) of an AH-64D presumably taking off for operations in Gaza. However, one of the Hellfire missiles carried on the cluster of four on the inner pylon of the right-side wing stub had a red-colored band.
This stood out from the three other Hellfire missiles with yellow bands seen on live Hellfires in general and this Israeli Apache in particular. The missile’s overall color was also grayish in tone and not dark olive.
The IsAF soon deleted the picture as netizens began asking curious questions and replaced it with an Apache carrying a quartet of Hellfires with only yellow bands. “We continue to act and attack in the strip, shoulder to shoulder with the fighters in the field,” the post read.
However, military analysis handles on X pointed to other open-source pictures of the Hellfire in yellow bands and official US military weapons classification manuals to show that a red band could represent an incendiary warhead. Otherwise, it could be an AGM-114N with a thermobaric warhead. The latter seems to be more suited for the IDF needs in Gaza for anti-bunker and underground targets.
A thermobaric warhead, a vacuum bomb, has two separate explosive charges. One charge is almost entirely fuel, which mixes with the atmospheric oxygen to create an aerosol-like cloud. The second charge detonates it and creates a massive blast wave. The high temperature and the destructive shockwave can destroy reinforced buildings.
But the combination of the high-temperature explosion and the shockwave makes thermobaric weapons more suitable for enclosed spaces like foxholes, tunnels, bunkers, and caves, which are abundant in Gaza.
There is also a possibility that the thermobaric AGM-114N does not always sport a red band, as was suggested by leading military analyst Guy Plopsky. This, therefore, leads to the possibility that the markings are Israel-specific, which has been known to heavily customize the performance specifications of weapons it purchases from the US.
A prime example is the IsAF’s F-35, christened the ‘I’ (F-35I), with hitherto classified modifications and tweaks suited to its needs. “The missile could also be a familiar one, but marked with color codes that make sense to the IDF, but which are not the same as those used by the US military,” said a report on The Drive.
Mid-Air Apache Vs. Underground Hamas
The employment of the Apache itself in an urban warfare setting where there is barely any overground enemy presence is curious. Al Qassam Brigade fighters would only pop in and out of tunnels and would not maintain a prolonged presence on the streets. They would become easy prey for Israeli combined arms and helicopter gunships.
A conceivable scenario under which the Apaches and the Hellfires could find applications is the helicopter firing the missile into an exposed tunnel or bunker that IDF soldiers have captured. The devastating explosion and shockwave can potentially destroy several kilometers of the tunnel and render it permanently useless.
But again, the breadth and extent of the tunnels and their interconnectivity are unknown, where localized destruction of a part of the underground network might not dent Al Qassam’s fighting ability.
Suppose Israeli allegations about Hamas siphoning off vast portions of the international aid and development programs for a decade to build its underground network are true. In that case, the tunnels might run all under Gaza.