Hellfire R9X, the bladed missile used to eliminate Ayman al-Zawahiri

The R9X (full name AGM-114R9X) is an air-to-ground missile (AGM) that is reportedly armed with six blades. There are no images of this missile before its launch in the public domain. Given that the R9X is a modification of the well-known Hellfire family of rockets (code 114), and based on the debris found at the impact sites, one can make an educated guess as to what it should look like.

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Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee
Aritra Banerjee is a Journalist with Indian Aerospace & Defence, Co-Author of the book 'The Indian Navy @75: Reminiscing the Voyage' and the Co-Founder of Mission Victory India (MVI), a new-age military reforms think-tank. He has been a columnist writing on defence and strategic affairs for national and international publications in both print and digital media.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, was killed by an American drone this weekend while on his balcony in Kabul. During this operation, Washington would have used a drone equipped with the “Hellfire R9X”, a missile equipped with several large blades, hence its nickname “ninja bomb”.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed when two missiles hit his home in Kabul. But the building bears no signs of an explosion, and no one was injured in operation, according to U.S. officials. Not a civilian nor the members of the family of the terrorist leader were affected, although they lived only a few meters away.

“The strike was ultimately carried out (…) by an unmanned aircraft. Two Hellfire missiles (are fired at) Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is killed”, revealed a senior American official. To carry out this mission, the United States decided to opt for a little-known weapon whose effectiveness would be formidable. In order to cause as few collateral victims as possible, the operation was carried out using the famous Hellfire R9X missile, according to the contextual elements revealed around the end of this hunt.

A missile equipped with six blades

A mission made possible by the use of these missiles dubbed Hellfire R9X ‘Flying Ginsu’, after a famous television commercial from the 1980s for Ginsu brand kitchen knives, which could cleanly cut through aluminium cans and remained perfectly sharp. But these missiles, which the Pentagon or the CIA has officially recognized, are also nicknamed “ninja bombs” for the precision with which the weapon hits its target without causing collateral damage like an exploding star.

This modified version of the American Hellfire AGM-114 missile developed under the Obama administration would be devoid of explosive charge but equipped with six blades which deploy before impact to cut its target without blast effect. A photo of a suspected target’s car in Syria in 2017 shows a massive hole in the vehicle’s roof, the interior shredded, but the front and rear intact.

The Hellfire R9X has already been used in recent years to eliminate Qassam al-Urduni and Bilal al-Sanaani, two commanders of the Syrian organization Tanzim Hurras ad-Din, linked to the Al-Qaeda group. In the investigation reports, no explosion had been observed in 2017 when they died, already casting doubt on the use of this discreet and lethal missile.

Its use by the United States would also have killed the same year Ahmad Hasan Abu Khayr al-Masri, number two of Al-Qaeda, according to information from the  Wall Street Journal in an investigation published in 2019 about this guy of weapon. The newspaper reports that the Hellfire R9X has been used several times in different attacks in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

Telltale signs of Hellfire R9X 

The R9X (full name AGM-114R9X) is an air-to-ground missile (AGM) that is reportedly armed with six blades. There are no images of this missile before its launch in the public domain. Given that the R9X is a modification of the well-known Hellfire family of rockets (code 114), and based on the debris found at the impact sites, one can make an educated guess as to what it should look like.

The debris that is publicly available is usually substantially destroyed, but certain pieces of the missile appear to be unique to this specific model of Hellfire missile.

The blades themselves appear to shatter into pieces on impact. So far, not a single intact blade has been found at the site of the impact of R9X. The surviving debris suggests that the blades are made of unpainted metal with holes, probably to reduce the rocket’s weight.

Hellfire R9X
Location of attachment of the blades to the Hellfire R9X. Note the clearly visible holes in the blades. Image courtesy – El Dorar

Another characteristic fragment that remains after the impact of R9X is a red ball. It has been found in a relatively intact R9X missile in Syria. The U.S. military blog The Drive’s War Zone defines this fragment as a pneumatic accumulator and adds that, despite the characteristic appearance of the ball, it is not unique to the R9X and is also used in Hellfire missiles of other modifications.

This missile appears to match the regular Hellfire missile but has a unique internal design. The rocket’s weight is about 49 kg, similar to many other Hellfire variants.

It appears the R9X missile has only been used to kill individuals, primarily in unarmored vehicles. Because the R9X rocket does not have an explosive warhead, vehicles hit by it appear to take significantly less damage than conventional munitions. Vehicle windows that are not directly in the missile’s flight path appear to be able to survive the impact, and overall the vehicle tends to look more intact. However, this less significant damage cannot be considered a clear indication of the use of R9X. There are other munitions that use low-yield or inert warheads that can cause a similar level of damage when fired.

The most characteristic sign of an R9X impact is a cut where the blades hit the vehicle. These cuts appear to be unique and highly distinct evidence of using R9X. Sometimes, several missiles are fired at the same target, resulting in much fewer precise cuts. However, the characteristic cuts are still visible on the body’s remains.

It cannot be ruled out that R9X missiles will continue to be used in the future – most likely, these will be pinpoint strikes against infamous personalities.

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