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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

How the U.S. Military Strikes with Hellfire ‘Sword’ Missiles

Hellfire missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The U.S. military is stacked with all sorts of weapons for drone platforms to ensure terrorits or any target can be destroyed. This weekend we saw how deadly those weapons are, such as Hellfire ‘Sword’ Missiles: Over the weekend, the CIA located and killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been the leader of al-Qaeda since 2011 following the killing of Osama bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was reportedly targeted with a Hellfire missile equipped with swords instead of explosives. This isn’t the first time that a terrorist leader is reportedly killed by this unusual Hellfire missile.

These operations, while shrouded in secrecy, can’t help but leave behind an American calling card — as the missile itself isn’t destroyed upon impact.

All that remains behind is a mangled shell of a Hellfire missile with six 18″ blades extending from its midsection. These blades crush, slice, and kill anyone within about three feet of the impact.

While a traditional Hellfire missile kills through a combination of explosive force and shrapnel projection that can take out bystanders as readily as the target, this blade-toting Hellfire cousin offers the means to take out a single bad guy while leaving people standing just feet away from him completely unscathed.

Brutal as it may seem to load a precision-guided Hellfire missile with a half-dozen retractable swords, the weapon has thus far proven far safer for the civilian population than most other means of engaging high-value targets from a distance. Rather than taking out an entire building or city block, this weapon can target a specific seat in a vehicle.

Developed by the CIA under the Obama administration and wielded by America’s highly secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the AGM-114R9X, or Hellfire full of swords, could be thought of as an elegant but medieval solution to the problem of terrorists using civilians as protection against airstrikes.

The “ninja sword” Hellfire missile saw a sharp uptick in press late in 2019 after it was used twice in less than a week to kill different terrorists in Syria. The first strike took place on December 3, when an AGM-114R9X was used to specifically engage the passenger seat of a minivan in the Syrian city of Atmeh. The second strike took place somewhere between Afrin and Azaz, once again killing its target without injuring any bystanders.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the August 2022 killing of al-Qaeda’s leader. It was originally published in June 2021.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx. 

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