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WSJ reporters pull the tarp off a missile designed to kill only terrorists and leave nearby civilians unharmed




A specially modified Hellfire is intended to limit damage compared to typical missiles. Left, a car destroyed by a U.S. drone airstrike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in 2012 in Yemen. Right, a U.S. airstrike using a modified Hellfire killed al Qaeda deputy leader Abu Khayr al-Masri in Syria in 2017. PHOTO: FROM LEFT: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS; NEW JERSEY OFFICE OF HOMELAND SECURITY AND PREPAREDNESS
A specially modified Hellfire is intended to limit damage compared to typical missiles. Left, a car destroyed by a U.S. drone airstrike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in 2012 in Yemen. Right, a U.S. airstrike using a modified Hellfire killed al Qaeda deputy leader Abu Khayr al-Masri in Syria in 2017. PHOTO: FROM LEFT: KHALED ABDULLAH/REUTERS; NEW JERSEY OFFICE OF HOMELAND SECURITY AND PREPAREDNESS

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Imagine a weapon that could target and kill a terrorist leader while only causing a fraction of the damage and drastically reducing the chances of civilian casualties.

Believe it or not, the U.S. military has developed a weapon that does just this. The Wall Street Journal reported this week on a modified Hellfire missile called the R9X that has been used on the battlefield by both the Pentagon and the CIA, with the latter having used it in an airstrike as recently as this year. WSJ reports that more than a dozen U.S. current and former military officials confirmed the existence of the weapon, something that had only been speculated on until now.

So, how does this missile neutralize its target while not harming any civilians or causing widespread damage? For starters, it lacks a payload. Instead of a warhead, the missile is designed to be a giant projectile that falls from the sky and lands on whatever its target is. The landing is where things get interesting. When it strikes, the missile deploys six long blades that are stored inside the missile’s body, shredding anything in its path. In the small circles of people who are familiar with the weapon, it is known as “the flying Ginsu,” a reference to the infomercials from the 70s and 80s for knives that were advertised as being able to cut through shoe leather as easily as a sandwich.

Development of the weapon started in 2011 as the Obama administration was emphasizing the need to reduce civilian casualties caused by airstrikes and searching for a way to combat the increasing trend of terrorist fighters using large groups of women and kids as cover during airstrikes. It is only used in specific situation, usually when a target has been identified and pinpointed.

Today on AirTalk, Larry Mantle chats with the reporters who broke the story on the R9X Hellfire missile and finds out more about how the weapon works and what we know about the capacity in which it’s used by U.S. armed and intelligence forces.

Guests:

Gordon Lubold, Pentagon reporter for The Wall Street Journal; he tweets @glubold

Warren P. Strobel, national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal; he tweets @wstrobel