Secret U.S. Missile Aims to Kill Only Terrorists, Not Nearby Civilians

Weapon doesn’t explode, but brandishes knives to shred target; it was used in high-profile strikes in 2017 and this year

The U.S. government has developed a specially designed, secret missile for pinpoint airstrikes that kill terrorist leaders with no explosion, drastically reducing damage and minimizing the chances of civilian casualties, multiple current and former U.S. officials said.

Both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have used the weapon while closely guarding its existence. 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, shredding anything in its tracks.

The R9X is known colloquially to the small community of individuals who are familiar with its use as “the flying Ginsu,” for the blades that can cut through buildings, car roofs or other targets. The nickname is a reference to the popular knives sold on TV infomercials in the late 1970s and early 1980s that showed them cutting through both tree branches and tomatoes. The weapon has also been referred to as the Ninja bomb.

The missile was born of an emphasis, under former President Obama, on avoiding civilian deaths in long U.S. campaign of airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and other locales. Aside from humanitarian and legal considerations, civilian casualties can undermine popular and allied support for U.S. strategic goals.

But there was another reason for the weapon, officials said: Increasingly, terrorist fighters were adapting to U.S. airstrikes, hiding among groups of women and children to put themselves out of reach.

The weapon was under development as early as 2011. A missile with similar capabilities was considered as a “Plan B” to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that year, according to several of the officials.

In the end, officials opted to target bin Laden using select special-operations force fighters who confronted and killed bin Laden.

The weapon is used infrequently, employed only in specific circumstances, particularly when a senior terrorist leader has been pinpointed but other weapons would risk killing innocent bystanders, the officials said. Conventional Hellfire variants are more typically used against groups of targeted individuals or against a so-called high-value target who is convening with other militants.

But when a lone individual is targeted, the R9X is a sought-after weapon. The Defense Department has used it only about a half-dozen times, officials said, including in operations in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Somalia.

.. The aftermath of such operations has prompted speculation about a possible new weapon among those who were there or viewed photos. The strikes bore no resemblance to the damage normally wrought by U.S. airstrikes.

.. A Hellfire, which is a little more than five feet long and weighs just over 100 pounds, typically leaves behind mangled, burned-out shells of vehicles, surrounded by debris and scorch marks over a large radius.

The R9X leaves no such signature. Photographs of the aftermath of the strike on Mr. Masri show an oblong hole torn into the roof of the car in which he was riding. There are no burn marks suggesting an explosion. The windshield of the Kia sedan is cracked, but the car’s windshield wipers are still in place.

.. One former U.S. official said the weapon addressed a longstanding “right seat, left seat” problem, suggesting it is theoretically possible to kill someone sitting in the passenger seat of a moving car, but not the driver. (Two militants reportedly were killed in the February 2017 strike.)

Development and refinement of the weapon drew impetus from Mr. Obama’s policy announcement in May 2013 that set new rules for using lethal force outside of declared war zones such as Afghanistan. When taking action, there must be “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” Mr. Obama said then.

The weapon was developed “for the express purpose of reducing civilian casualties,” a second former official said.

A third former official said the weapon can be used when there are doubts about the structural integrity of a building, such as a mud-and-thatch hut, where a terrorist is located. It could kill the terrorist without collapsing the building and injuring or killing everyone else inside, this person said.

The U.S. officials said extraordinarily accurate intelligence about a target’s location and surroundings are needed to use the weapon. But there is also an intelligence and cost benefit, they said. Because the weapon minimizes the risk of civilian casualties, there are more opportunities to take a shot, reducing the number of hours the military has to keep surveillance and armed aircraft aloft.

President Trump in March rescinded an Obama-era requirement for an annual report of civilian casualties from airstrikes outside of conventional war zones. Mr. Trump has also given more flexibility to conduct drone strikes to the CIA, which faces fewer requirements for public accountability than the U.S. military.

Two of the officials who agreed to discuss the secret weapon said they believed the U.S. government should have acknowledged its existence years ago. Doing so, one said, would send a message to the Islamic world that the U.S. takes extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties.

Sarah Holewinski, who has advised the U.S. military on reducing harm to civilians in warfare, cautioned that if civilians know about weapons such as the R9X, they may take fewer precautions against exposing themselves to risk from airstrikes. She said she hadn’t been aware of the R9X’s existence.

But Ms. Holewinski, a senior fellow at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said “there appears to be a ton of benefits” from such a weapon.

Killer Politicians

What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.

Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.

.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.

.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.

Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.

.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.

When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.

A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.

.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.

The Grim Logic Behind Syria’s Chemical Weapons Attack

For years, at least since it began shelling neighborhoods with artillery in 2012, then bombing them from helicopters and later from jets, the Syrian government has adopted a policy of seeking total victory by making life as miserable as possible for anyone living in areas outside its control.

.. Government forces have been herding defeated opponents from across the country into Idlib Province, where the chemical attack occurred. Starved and bombed out of their enclaves, they are bused under lopsided surrender deals to the province, where Qaeda-linked groups maintain a presence the Syrian military uses as an excuse to bomb without regard for the safety of civilians.

.. such extreme tactics aimed to demonstrate the government’s impunity and to demoralize its foes.

.. “Militarily, there is no need,” said Bente Scheller, the Middle East director of the Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation. “But it spreads the message: You are at our mercy. Don’t ask for international law. You see, it doesn’t protect even a child.”

.. Syria’s foreign minister challenged accounts by witnesses, experts and world leaders that his government was involved. “I stress to you once again: The Syrian Army has not, did not and will not use this kind of weapons — not just against our own people, but even against the terrorists that attack our civilians with their mortar rounds,” the minister, Walid al-Moallem, said in Damascus.

.. But the denial, as well as a Russian assertion that a bomb hit a chemical weapons depot controlled by the rebels, seemed perfunctory, almost without regard to the facts

.. recent statements by American officials that it was time to accept the “political reality” of Mr. Assad’s grip on power.

By showing it puts no limits on the tactics it uses, Mr. Yazigi wrote, “the regime shows to the world the West’s impotence and weakness.”

.. After Mr. Trump came into office, proclaiming a wish to work with Russia and maybe even Mr. Assad against the Islamic State, expectations grew that the international community would accept relegitimizing Mr. Assad. And last week came the statements from Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and the ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, indicating effectively that Washington could accept Mr. Assad remaining in power.

.. On Monday, Western officials were gathering in Brussels to weigh billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to the Assad government

Hugh Gusterson recommends the best books on Drone Warfare

I think what makes drones attractive to President Obama and other national security policy makers is that they don’t involve Americans coming back from the Middle East in body bags. It is a way of waging warfare invisibly. So although some people do have agreement about drones, I don’t know that they excite the kind of opposition that other forms of military intervention do, precisely because they seem to have such a minimal cost for the American people. A crashed drone isn’t 4,000 Americans coming back from Iraq in body bags.

.. It’s worth noting that the protests against using drones have been very small. If you go to air force bases [in the US], where drones are being protested, only a couple of dozen protesters show up. Compare that to protests on the eve of the Iraq war which had hundreds of thousands of people at one point. So there’s been difficulty drumming up a real protest movement against them.

.. That said, why do drones upset the people they upset so much? I think part of it is that they’re perceived as cowardly. Interestingly, I found that it’s often people in the military who feel most strongly about it. Someone recently sent me a favourable review of my book that’s about to come out in Military Review by a US army officer. I think many people in the army have an honourable sense of what warfare involves: the reciprocal vulnerability of combatants facing each other, wagering their bodies for a cause.

.. Chamayou asks some of the questions about whether warfare, when it is fought by drones, can even be called warfare. The lack of reciprocal vulnerability between the drone operator and the victim makes him think of drone warfare as being more like hunting.

.. Well, as well as blurring the distinction between warfare and police work, I think it is blurring the distinction between war and peace. In a place like Yemen or Somalia there could be long periods where there is no drone strike, and then suddenly there is a drone strike. There might be two or three in a week, and then several weeks with no strikes, and so on. So it is not clear if there is a state of peace or a state of war. Warfare is becoming indefinite.

.. Interestingly, he felt more at peace when he was deployed to Iraq than when he was working out of Nevada as a drone operator, because he didn’t have to deal with the daily back and forth between being in combat of a kind and then the same night being back at home with his wife.

.. I think there is something about the drone operator’s remoteness that adds to the trauma. If you imagine being a pilot in a war zone, as soon as you drop a bomb on the ground you disappear very quickly. You don’t get much of a chance to see what you did. But it is part of the protocol of a drone operator that they are supposed to circle for a long time, even for hours, after a drone strike – doing meticulous assessment of the damage and trying to count the bodies, which can be difficult if the bodies are in more than one piece. Although you are physically thousands of miles away, it feels as if you’re just a few inches away on the screen, and you have to look very carefully at what you just did.

..  In my book I quote a deputy administrator of the CIA saying “the gloves come off” after 9/11. That’s when the decision was made to weaponise drones.

.. It is children and civilians who are also being killed by drone strikes, and Chris Woods has been at the forefront of uncovering that.

.. Obama has a strong penchant for secrecy, and in a way drones have brought out the worst in Obama’s personality

.. Leon Panetta, the former head of the CIA, when writing his memoir, was not allowed to talk about the existence of drone strikes. The military censors took it out of his memoir, which is bizarre and ridiculous, as the media were constantly reporting drone strikes but he wasn’t allowed to confirm that they existed.

.. they claim to give a fairly definitive accounting of the number of civilians killed by accident by American drones. But I noticed that all the media that I read couldn’t report on it with a straight face. The statistics were condemned as inaccurate almost as soon as they were released.

.. Fair, balanced and objective are not his strong suits, but making a very strong polemical case is.

.. In this book he describes drone strikes as part of a particular military predilection for identifying enemy forces as networks, trying to find nodal people in these networks and knocking them out. According to him, this is a military strategy that goes back to WW2 where people in the Allies said if only we could get to senior Nazi officers – by, for example, killing Hitler – then everything would collapse.

.. When you identify someone in a senior position and you kill them, they get replaced pretty quickly, and often by someone even nastier.

.. So he sees drones as the latest instantiation of a particular strategy that has always been bankrupt.

.. One of the things that Scahill demonstrates is that the more people drones kill, the longer the kill list becomes – which is a very striking paradox.

.. One of the things that drone technology enables is distributed command, so the footage from a drone can be piped simultaneously into lots of different command centres. You can have people in Doha looking at it while someone in Washington D.C. is looking at it. That often produces collective decisions where people are frantically talking to people in command centres hundreds of thousands of miles away. And often by the time they make a decision, the chance to take a shot is gone.

.. We saw in the case of the Iraq war that the American people were largely happy to invade Iraq until the war went really wrong – until Americans started coming back in body bags – and then they turned against it and said that George Bush had been an idiot to invade. The same with Blair. We wouldn’t have the Chilcott report, and the turning of American opinion against the war in Iraq, if it hadn’t been for those 4,000 Americans who died there. They are the hostages of the democratic war-making process, in a sense. But drones have broken that link in the chain. They make possible perpetual war without costs.

.. But I think that it should be absolutely clear that you cannot attack people in countries with which you are not at war.

.. If American operatives went to Yemen, placed a car bomb in the capital and blew something up, everyone would recognise that as an act of international terrorism because the US is not at war with Yemen. I think we should see drones in exactly the same way. Instead of planting a car bomb they are attacking someone with a bomb from the sky, but it is basically the same thing.