The US Marine Corps (USMC) in November finished testing the Bell AH-1Z Viper’s ability to launch AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles (JAGMs) at maritime targets – a capability the service sees as having potential to prevent enemy ships from transiting littoral zones.

“AH-1Z pilots tested JAGM off the coast of Florida, hitting moving target boats up to 3.8nm [7km] away, using both laser and radar sensors for guidance,” the service said on 6 December. “All of the launches were successful under planned test conditions.”

USMC Bell AH-1Z Viper used for JAGM tests against ships c USMC

Source: US Marine Corps

The USMC wants to use the AH-1Z to attack maritime and land-based targets

The service envisions Vipers as fighting in coordination with USMC forces deployed at expeditionary bases near the front lines.

The AH-1Z operational tests follow hardware and software upgrades made by the US Army to its Boeing AH-64E Apache in 2020, which allow that attack helicopter to target ships using its mast-mounted APG-78 Longbow fire control radar.

Both capabilities would help the Department of Defense’s premier attack helicopters – which previously focused on land-based missions such as anti-tank operations – play a role in naval warfare. Those capabilities would be useful for fights on and around small islands off China’s coast.

The USMC says the recent JAGM tests included multiple live-fire launches of the missile against “realistic operational threats”.

JAGM is intended to replace the US Army’s and USMC’s Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire missile. The new weapon is guided to targets with a semi‑active laser and millimetre-wave radar.

That dual-seeker configuration helps the missile navigate through smoke, dust or vegetation. The millimetre-wave radar also allows JAGM to find targets autonomously.

“The addition of [millimetre-wave radar] capability to the seeker allows a true fire-and-forget capability and increased flexibility for the operator on the battlefield,” says Major Chuck Smith, the USMC H-1 department head at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.

JAGM has already reached initial operational capability on the US Army’s AH-64E and is anticipated to reach that milestone on the USMC’s AH-1Z in 2022. The USMC expects JAGM to head into full-rate production in 2022.