It slices and dices —
Hellfire missile has spring-loaded blades created to minimize collateral damage.
Drone strikes have been the go-to approach by both the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency to take out terrorists and insurgent leaders over the past decade, and the main weapon in those strikes has been the Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire II missile—a laser-guided weapon originally developed for use by Army helicopters as a “tank buster.” But as concerns about collateral damage from drone strikes mounted, the DOD and CIA apparently pushed for development of a new Hellfire that takes the term “surgical strike” to a new level, with a version that could be used to take out a single individual.
The Wall Street Journal reports that just such a weapon has been developed and deployed on at least two occasions, based on information provided by multiple current and former defense and intelligence officials. Designated the Hellfire R9X, the missile has no explosive warhead—instead, its payload is more than 100 pounds of metal, including long blades that deploy from the body of the missile just before impact.
“To the targeted person, it is as if a speeding anvil fell from the sky,” according to the WSJ. Some officials referred to the weapon as “the flying Ginsu,” because the blades can cut through concrete, sheet metal, and other materials surrounding a target.
The R9X was developed in part as a response to President Barack Obama’s mandate to reduce civilian casualties in drone strikes, especially in light of the tactic adopted by leaders of targeted terrorist and insurgent organizations (such as the leaders of the Taliban and Al Qaeda) of using women and children as a human shield in hopes of avoiding drone strikes. While the missile was apparently in development as far back as 2011, the exact timeline of development was not revealed by officials; a similar weapon was considered as an option to take out Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan before it was decided to send Navy SEAL operators in instead.
According to the Journal’s sources, the DOD has only used the R9X about six times. The Journal confirmed two strikes—one, in January of 2019 by the Air Force against Jamal al-Badawi, the individual accused of being the mastermind of the bombing of the USSCole(a strike that the Pentagon has officially acknowledged, but without disclosing the weapons used); and a CIA strike against Al Qaeda leader Ahmad Hasan Abu Khayr al-Masri in February of 2017. In both cases, the strikes took out the targets but did not blow up the vehicles they were in—in the case of the attack on al-Masri, there was only a hole in the roof of his Kia and a crack in the windshield.