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.