The Hellfire R9X is a U.S.-made missile that hits a single target with minimum collateral damage. On July 31, 2022, the U.S. military killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri using its “secret weapon,” the Hellfire R9X missile.

Hellfire R9X missile
Ayman al-Zawahiri with Osama bin Laden

Zawahiri, an Egyptian surgeon with a $25 million bounty on his head, helped coordinate the September 11, 2001, attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.

What’s Hellfire R9X?

The Hellfire R9X is a U.S.-made missile that hits a single target with minimum collateral damage. The Missile is also known as AGM-114 R9X. This is a “precision-guided cold weapon” you can see the apparent cutting marks on the roof.

The weapon, also known as the “Ninja Missile,” does not contain an explosive payload in the traditional sense but instead ejects a blade at the end of its attack trajectory. 

Hellfire R9X missile

Capable of cutting through even thick steel plates, utilizing the kinetic energy of its propulsion to cut through targets while inflicting no damage to surrounding people or building structures.

Concept image, where the blade is ejected from the Missile, slicing through the intended target without harming the surrounding environment as a missile carrying an exploding warhead.

When did this Missile enter service?

The “Hellfire” 9RX missile is believed to have been in service since 2017. However, its existence was made public in the year 2019.

It is a derivative of the original Hellfire missile family, an air-to-surface anti-tank missile that uses conventional warheads launched from helicopters (particularly ‘Apache’ gunships) and ground vehicles.

Sometimes also used from small ships and fast-moving vessels (Littoral Combat Ships can fire ‘Hellfires’ against speedboat-type targets with their drooping launchers). Hellfire missiles have been installed on U.S. combat drones for quite some time. 

 

Where has this Missile been used before?

Hellfire R9X missile
An MQ-9 Reaper armed with eight AGM-114 Hellfire missiles sits on the flight line at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 10, 2020.

In 2017, Ninja missiles killed Abu Kher al-Masri, the second al-Qaeda leader at the time. It was also deployed against different Syrian targets around that year. 

In 2020 and 2022, it was also employed against Taliban targets in Afghanistan. There is strong evidence that U.S. drones used R9X Ninja missiles for targeted removal in Syria’s Idlib area.

The Missile has no explosive material but shreds the target with blades mounted on the projectile. Those killed were allegedly two al-Qaeda leaders.

How much is known about other Hellfire missile variants?

Hellfire is an acronym for Heliborne, Laser, Fire, and Forget Missile, which was first designed in the United States for use in Apache AH-64 attack helicopters.

The usage of these missiles was later extended to include other modified helicopters, ground and sea-based weapons, and unmanned aerial vehicles. 

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman created the Hellfire missile, and it has several variations, including the Ninja, Longbow, and Romeo.