The US military used its ‘secret weapon’ — the Hellfire R9X missile – to kill Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the balcony of a safehouse in Kabul on July 31.
Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon who had a $25 million bounty on his head, had helped coordinate the September 11, 2001, attacks that had killed nearly 3,000 people.
Better known in military circles as the AGM-114 R9X, the Hellfire R9X is a US-origin missile known to cause minimum collateral damage while engaging individual targets.
Also known as the ‘Ninja Missile’, this weapon does not carry a warhead and instead deploys razor-sharp blades at the terminal stage of its attack trajectory. This helps it to break through even thick steel sheets and cut down the target using the kinetic energy of its propulsion without causing any damage to the persons in the general vicinity or to the structure of the building.
The blades pop out of the missile and cut down the intended target without causing the massive damage to the surroundings which would be the case with a missile carrying an explosive warhead.
The Hellfire 9RX missile is known to have been in active service since 2017. However, its existence became public knowledge two years later in 2019.
It is a variant of the original Hellfire missile family which is used in conventional form with warheads and is traditionally used from helicopters, ground-based vehicles, and sometimes small ships and fast moving vessels. For several years now, the Hellfire family of missiles, including the ‘Ninja Missile’, are armed on Combat Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or drones that the US Military uses in offensive military operations around the world.
In 2017, the ‘Ninja Missile’ was reportedly used to kill the then No. 2 leader of Al Qaeda, Abu Khayr Al Masri, in Syria. It was also used against other targets in Syria at around the same time. The damage caused to the vehicles which carried the targets, particularly the shredded roofs of cars, gave the first clues that a normal warhead was not used on the missile and that it had sharp blades. It has also been used against Taliban targets in Afghanistan in 2020 and again in 2022.
Hellfire is actually an acronym for Heliborne, Laser, Fire and Forget Missile and it was developed in the US initially to target tanks from the Apache AH-64 attack helicopters. Later, the usage of these missiles spread to several other variants of helicopters and also ground and sea-based systems and drones.
Developed by Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the Hellfire missile has other variants such as ‘Longbow’ and ‘Romeo’ apart from the ‘Ninja’.