Hellfire R9X: The rarely known missile that took down Al Qaeda's top leader

It was a modified version of the famous Hellfire missile.
Ameya Paleja
MQ-9 Reaper firing Hellfire missileThe U.S. Army
  • More than 100,00 Hellfire missiles have been sold to date
  • Hellfire missiles can break through bunkers, bridges, and urban structures
  • The site of the attack has only a precise hole

U.S. officials have claimed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) carried out the strike that took down Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the terrorist group Al Qaeda. Although not much is known about how the operation was carried out, experts suggest that it may have involved a kinetic weapon fired from a drone, Reuters reported.

The use of drones by U.S. forces has become more rampant after the 9/11 attacks. What started off with President George W.Bush was expanded further by Presidents Obama and Trump. An uncrewed aerial vehicle capable of carrying out precise strikes even in high-risk environments is a valuable asset for any military, and the Hellfire missiles fit right into this role.

What is a Hellfire missile?

Designed in the 1980s as an anti-tank weapon, the Hellfire has been used by the U.S. military and intelligence agencies for over two decades. The U.S. Army's Acquisition Support Center (USA ASC) lists two versions of the missile, which are both precision strike weapons guided by a semi-active laser or Millimeter Wave (MMW) radar.

Warheads on these missiles can take out patrol boats, urban structures, bunkers, bridges, and much more. The air-to-ground weapon can work in adverse weather conditions and has a range of nearly up to five miles (eight km).

However, images of the attack site shared on social media show no signs of the massive damage that these missiles are capable of. While U.S. officials have confirmed that two Hellfire missiles were used, they are also confident that there was no collateral damage. This has led analysts to believe that the weapon was likely the R9X variant of the Hellfire missile, of which very little is publicly known about.

How does the R9X Hellfire work?

According to Gizmodo's report, the R9X was developed in 2011 and has been in use since 2017. Its existence was shrouded in secrecy till a 2019 Wall Street Journal report brought it into the public domain. The missile does not use an explosive warhead but works purely on kinetic energy to do its damage.

Washington Post reported that the missile has six rotating blades that emerge as the weapon approaches its target, and these can also be retracted. Its mode of action has earned the weapon nicknames like the flying Ginsu, knife bomb, and Ninja bomb.

Images released on social media allege that the Al Qaeda leader was killed on the balcony of the building. So, it is likely that the R9X Hellfire did not have to penetrate the structure, although it is capable of doing so. There also appears to be a precise hole in the building, Gizmodo said in its report. Apart from that, there is no damage to the exterior of the building where the terrorist leader was staying.

In August 2021, as the U.S. troops were preparing to leave Afghanistan, a drone strike that was carried out at a suspected ISIS-K terrorist claimed the life of a civilian relief worker and nine more people, of which seven were children. The public backlash over these actions may have had a part to play in the selection of the weapon for this strike.

A Special Operations Command spokesperson confirmed to Reuters that the R9X was part of the forces' munition inventory.

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