The highly specialized — and secretive — missile is used against high-value targets in places with high civilian population densities.
The United States carried out a strike on Islamic State militants using a new and novel kind of Hellfire missile on Saturday, retaliation for the recent Hamid Karzai International Airport suicide bombing in Kabul late last week. The strike, carried out by a Reaper drone against what appeared to be a small SUV, reportedly killed two IS militants involved with the suicide bombing and injured a third.
The missile used in the airstrike is as mysterious as it is deadly.
Hellfire in a Handbasket
Known as the RX9, the missile is a variant of the United States’ Hellfire missile, an air-to-surface missile that entered service with the United States in the mid-1980s. The Hellfire’s original purpose was as a dedicated tank-buster missile for Apache attack helicopters. However, the missile’s relatively small size and weight, just over five feet, and 100 pounds, has proven to be an asset and allowed not just helicopters but fixed-wing aircraft, boats, and a variety of ground vehicles to fire the missile as well.
But the Hellfire missile’s most common application has been on the United States’ fleet of large unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator and Reaper drones.
Unlike most missiles, the RX9 Hellfire does not explode. In place of the missile’s standard 18-20 pound warhead, the RX9 instead carries six long blades. Akin to swords, the blades lie just inside the missile along the length of the Hellfire body. Then, moments before impact, the blades spring outward. The combination of razor-sharp blades combined with the missile’s approximately 100-pound mass crush and slice its target.
The RX9 is particularly useful when a target is close to civilians and civilian infrastructure. Instead of risking civilian casualties with an explosive warhead, the RX9’s kinetic nature combined with the Hellfire’s pinpoint accuracy allows commanders an incredible amount of precision in selecting targets and, in turn, avoiding collateral damage to lives and property. Though unconfirmed, some sources have claimed that the RX9 is so accurate that it can target individual vehicle seats.
It is not the first time the RX9 has been used.
In 2017, the United States fired an RX9 missile at Abu Khayr al-Masri, a senior al-Qaeda leader in Syria. In 2019, the U.S. fired an RX9 at Jamal Ahmad Mohammad Al-Badawi, the mastermind behind the USS Cole bombing, while Al-Badawi was on the lam in Yemen, killing him. In addition, an RX9 is thought to have been used in the 2020 killing of a local al-Qaeda leader in Syria. Estimates on the number of strikes carried out with the RX9 missile range from six to 10 times.
The United States has never officially acknowledged the RX9’s existence. But, a plethora of photographic evidence and first-person accounts strongly support the belief that when targeting high-value targets in urban areas, the United States likes to rely on a certain, 6-bladed Hellfire missile for counterterrorism.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.