JAGM beats Hellfire on the battlefield because it can be used night or day, in all types of weather. Add in smoke or bad weather and government studies show that four JAGMs can neutralize as many targets as seven Hellfires under those conditions.
Here’s the good part for the men and women carrying out these missions. The JAGM's maximum range is greater than Hellfire’s. At 28 kilometers for fighters and 16 kilometers for helicopters, JAGM can launch from safely outside point area defenses. And the JAGM is lethal against a static or moving target, from advanced armor to small boats and troops in the open.
Currently, a Raytheon-Boeing team and Lockheed Martin are developing competing missiles for the JAGM program. This competitive prototyping as a new way of acquiring weapons has yielded solid results. To date, the Raytheon-Boeing missile has gone 3-for-3 in government flight tests, and Lockheed has also had a successful test. Tests like these dramatically lower program risk and keep both contractors fighting hard to deliver best performance and best price.
JAGM in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps inventory saves money by cutting back on maintenance, replacement and inventory costs. Because JAGMs are more effective than Hellfires the taxpayer over time will pay for fewer of them to be produced.
So what’s the problem?  It’s the risk of a panic default to just upgrading Hellfire. New motors and seekers for that venerable missile still won't deliver the better performance of JAGM. Worse, scrapping JAGM and investing in upgrades wouldn’t save money in the long-term. In the end, we'd still be using multiple Hellfires to do the job of a single JAGM.
The U.S. Military has already invested $912 million developing the JAGM -- including $372 million spent by the Army and Navy before the Joint Common Missile program was initially canceled in 2005 for going over budget. But the program was soon resurrected. Why? Because the need for the missile did not go away. What makes us think that the outcome this time will be any different? For nearly $1 billion, the military deserves to end up with a fielded product.
And if this program is killed, what next? Do we want to send the message that important R&D programs can be killed anytime and never mind the sunk cost? There is a chilling effect when we abandon a program like this -- particularly the prototyping program that should serve as an example of how to run future acquisitions. It needs to survive in order to spawn others like it.
Guess what. This actually is rocket science. We’re talking advanced seekers, exploiting several chunks of the electromagnetic spectrum in the guidance, detection and warhead targeting. It takes time and persistence and dollars. But that’s all worth it when JAGM allows a helicopter crew to shoot from safer range or the Reaper operators to get the target they’ve been watching for hours.
Protecting the JAGM program is important because we can't afford to lose it. The short-term savings gained from dropping the program now wouldn't begin to cover the added expense of starting it up again later or fielding multiple alternatives. If the goal is saving money, the plan should be to keep this program funded.
Rebecca Grant, Ph.D., is president of IRIS Independent Research, a public-policy research organization in Washington, DC. She is also director of the General William Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, the non-profit research arm of the Air Force Association.