The U.S. government has a new, unusual tool in its toolbox of death: a missile designed to kill people not with high explosives but with large, sword-like blades that kill by literally slicing them to pieces. The weapon, nicknamed “The Flying Ginsu” after a brand of kitchen knives advertised in late night infomercials, was developed to minimize civilian casualties during U.S. airstrikes against terrorists and other targets.
The Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of the missile, known as the Hellfire R9X in a May 9th report:
A modified version of the well-known Hellfire missile, the weapon carries an inert warhead. Instead of exploding, it is designed to plunge more than 100 pounds of metal through the tops of cars and buildings to kill its target without harming individuals and property close by.
To the targeted person, it is as if a speeding anvil fell from the sky, the officials said. But this variant of the Hellfire missile, designated as the R9X, also comes equipped with a different kind of payload: a halo of six long blades that are stowed inside and then deploy through the skin of the missile seconds before impact to ensure that it shreds anything in its tracks.
As the Journal notes, the missile was designed to solve what’s known as the “left seat, right seat” problem. In essence, it’s the “answer” to the question of “how do you kill someone in the left seat of a car, when the person in the right seat is totally innocent?”
In theory, it’s supposed to minimize deaths, when you really REALLY just want one death.
The missile is reportedly the result of a directive handed down by the Obama Administration to reduce civilian casualties during target killings (read: assassinations) of terrorists worldwide, and is in use by both the U.S. military and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Obama administration undertook 353 drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the New America think tank, killing between 1,659 to 2,683 militants. In Yemen, the administration undertook 184 strikes during the same period, killing 973 to 1,240 militants.
The U.S. is known to target terrorist leaders, bomb makers, and couriers, particularly those who are fairly highly up in the terrorist hierarchy or have carried out attacks in the past, to disrupt terrorist networks and operations. Inevitably when you go after terrorists with missiles, civilians sometimes end up in the crosshairs and die. And in this era of social media, instant communications, and global news each civilian death, while a tragedy on the ground, can become a major headache for a U.S. president.
A total of 162 civilians were killed in Pakistan and 101 in Yemen during targeted killings by the Obama administration. These strikes are typically carried out by MQ-9 Reaper jets, the bigger, older brother of the MQ-1 Predator, using laser-guided Hellfire anti-tank missiles. The Obama administration, hammered by outside criticism, mandated a reduction in civilian deaths.
The result of the mandate was the Hellfire R9X, or the “Flying Ginsu.” The original AGM-114 Hellfire missile it’s based on was developed during the Cold War to kill Soviet tanks. During America’s endless modern wars it was further modified to be even more deadly to soft targets, including individuals, by swapping out the anti-tank warhead for a blast fragmentation warhead, which kills the old fashioned way with a high explosive blast and shrapnel, which kills people with concussive blast and flying metal fragments. Now the pendulum of lethality has swung back, and a new version is designed to take out a single individual.
The precision nature of GPS and laser-guided weapons means in some cases an actual high explosive warhead is unnecessary, if not downright counterproductive. From a cold, bureaucratic standpoint, civilian casualties cause negative publicity and may create more terrorists down the road than the strikes actually kill.
The R9X gets rid of the missile’s 18-20 pound explosive warhead entirely, swapping it for the kinetic energy of a Hellfire missile slamming into the ground at high speed. But just like in the original Ginsu informercials, wait, there’s more! The R9X is also armed with not one, two, three, but six sword-like steel blades that pop out of the missile at the last possible moment. This rocket-powered nightmare can carve through cars, concrete, and other cover to slice up a human target—without touching bystanders.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the missile has been used about half a dozen times. In one case the missile was used by the U.S. Air Force to kill Jamal al-Badawi, the accused mastermind of the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in 2000. In 2017, the CIA used a Flying Ginsu to kill Al Qaeda leader Ahmad Hasan Abu Khayr al-Masri. In both cases the individual targets were killed without blowing up the cars they were riding in—something a regular Hellfire would do. In the al-Masri attack the missile reportedly only left a hole in the roof of his Kia car and a crack in the windshield.
Hellfire R9X may be the first aerial weapon designed to go after specific individuals on the ground. The U.S. first fielded non-explosive bombs in 1999, when it used 2,000 pound laser-guided bombs filled with concrete to attack targets in Iraq. The bombs were meant to limit “collateral damage”—a military euphemism for non-military casualties. In the 2011 NATO air campaign in Libya, French air force jets dropped 660 pound concrete-filled training bombs on military targets. A French military spokesperson said the bombs produced “no or very little shrapnel” that could fly through the air and indiscriminately kill.
In 2009, Israel was rumored to use Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) bombs—bombs with a very small blast radius—in the Gaza Strip. While a “DIME bomb” might sound fairly innocuous, it’s anything but, as Wired noted back in 2009:
Erik Fosse, a Norwegian doctor working in Gaza says that the weapon “causes the tissue to be torn from the flesh. It looks very different [from a shrapnel injury]. I have seen and treated a lot of different injuries for the last 30 years in different war zones, and this looks completely different.”
According to Fosse and his colleague Mads Gilbert, the weapon typically amputates or tears apart lower limbs and patients often do not survive.
It’s no more illegal than normal blast-and-shrapnel weapons, but “focused lethality munitions” such as DIME and the Flying Ginsu inflict horrible injuries—that’s how you kill people, after all— and they limit them to individual persons.
And from an ethical standpoint, it brings up more hard questions. If you must kill someone to prevent them taking innocent lives, and your only recourse is to kill them, is there a way it should be done? Should we be grateful, in a way, for their invention, as they seek to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible? Or is their use, and their effects – death from six spinning swords spit out of a bomb, or shrapnel that tears flesh from limb – simply barbaric, no matter the initial intention?
It’s the logical conclusion of 18 years of constant conflict, the most advanced military industrial base in the world, and a country morally opposed to civilian casualties—but not morally opposed to war. If the U.S. decides that drone strikes against terrorists are legal and just the country is practically obligated to field a weapon like this. Who it targets and how they are determined to merit a visit from the Flying Ginsu is another matter entirely.