For the second time since 2017, there has been photographic evidence of a classified version of the Hellfire missile that uses a hardened front end to enable the missile to punch through the roof of civilian vehicles. Immediately after that six sharp blades are deployed and spin round rapidly killing anyone inside. At least that’s the theory after viewing the photos of the vehicle interiors after these attacks. This unconventional “ninja” missile is unofficially called the AGM-114R9X.
The R9X first became known during a February 2017 UAV missile attack on an Islamic terrorist leader in Syria. Photos of the vehicle hit revealed that a Hellfire with a non-explosive warhead was used to kill the al Qaeda second-in-command while he was in a moving vehicle. Pictures of the automobile were released and showed the large hole in the roof but no signs of an explosion. A similar attack took place in Yemen during a January 2019 attack and then again in October 2019 in Syria, not far from where ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leader Baghdadi had recently been killed during a commando raid.
Now no longer a secret, this non-explosive Hellfire was unofficially confirmed, but without revealing its official designation or any pictures of the missile. It is known that the R9X was developed in secret during 2016 to provide a weapon that could be used against Islamic terrorist leaders who regularly traveled only when there were a lot of civilians, particularly women and children, near them. If such a target were hit with a regular Hellfire the vehicle would explode, causing injuries, often fatal, to anyone nearby.
Keeping this warhead a secret prevented Islamic terrorists from changing their travel habits to avoid the R9X. This non-explosive Hellfire has apparently been used at least six times since 2016. That meant most Islamic terrorist leaders know it existed by now and, in general terms, how it worked. That justified the unofficial release of information about the R9X. The fact that it was used less than ten times in three years indicates that there were few opportunities for use and in each case, the UAV was carrying regular Hellfires as well as at least one R9X. The decision to use the R9X was an option if the target vehicle was apparently not going to be in the open before its passengers got out and disappeared into a building, compound or bunker.
The R9x did its job and while many saw this as a new development, it wasn’t. There is nothing high-tech about this either. The Israelis have frequently used Hellfire missiles with practice (non-explosive) warheads that will kill a few people traveling in an automobile and not cause additional damage. The R9X is a more lethal, and expensive variant of that which ensures that more people in the vehicle will die.
Users of Hellfire and ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) have long known that a practice (no explosives) warhead could still do a lot of damage because the practice warhead weighed the same as the explosive one. Moreover, the missile was heavy and traveling at high speed when it hit anything. Troops noted the damage these practice rounds could do to a variety of targets. Thus with the U.S. and Israel it became unofficial policy in some units to carry a practice TOW missile with them on some missions where it would be important to avoid casualties to nearby civilians. The Israelis later used the same technique with Hellfires.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force and Navy had been working on lower "bang" 500 pound bombs for years. The objective was to create a bomb that can be used in urban areas to destroy a single structure or just part of a larger one without injuring nearby civilians and the structures they are in. This eventually led to the development of the FLM (Focused Lethality Munition) bomb. This uses a composite (carbon fiber) casing and replaces some of the normal 127.2 kg (280 pounds) of explosives with 93 kg of explosives surrounded by high-density filler (fine tungsten powder). A regular 500 pound bomb has a blast radius (injury from blast pressure) out to 13 meters, with dangerous fragments lethal out to 40 meters. The FAM cut these distances by at least half. Meanwhile, the filler makes the bomb deadlier within the smaller blast radius. FAM, of course, was GPS or laser-guided.
Back in 2007, the U.S. Navy began using the LCDB (Low Collateral Damage Bomb) in Iraq. This is basically a 500 pound JDAM (GPS guided smart bomb) with 89 percent of the explosives replaced with non-explosive material. This was so the bomb's flight characteristics remained the same. The remaining 13.6 kg (30 pounds) of explosives give the bomb a much smaller bang, and thus less chance of nearby civilians getting hurt. The LCDB has a bang that is closer to that of a 155mm artillery shell. What's interesting about that is the U.S. Army had begun using GPS guided Excalibur 155mm "smart shells" in Iraq at the same time. But Excalibur costs twice as much as an LCDB, as does the new (then) air force SBD (121 kg/265 pound Small Diameter Bomb). Thus the demand for a cheaper, variable explosive 500 pound bomb.
The concept of the R9X, FAM and LCDB goes back even further. During the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force replaced all the 189 kg (416 pounds) of explosives (with concrete) in thousand pound laser-guided bombs used against Iraqi anti-aircraft guns and missiles. This was because Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had ordered his anti-aircraft weapons placed inside densely packed residential areas, in the hope that any American or British aircraft responding to anti-aircraft fire, would also kill lots of civilians. That would make for a great photo op, as Saddam was trying to turn himself into a victim of American and British aggression. Dead civilians helped a lot. Concrete smart bombs took out the anti-aircraft weapons but rarely hurt any nearby civilians. The LCDB was used against targets in buildings, or out in the open, who need at least a little bang, and bomb fragments, to take out the bad guys.
Variable yield nuclear explosives have been around for decades, because it is easier to limit the amount of nuclear material that will be turned into a nuclear explosion. But it has proved more difficult to do this with conventional explosives. Despite that, in 2010 the U.S. Navy began working on a variable explosive bomb (VEB) based on technology demonstrated by weapons manufacturer ATK. Such a bomb could be set to a different amount of explosive force by the pilot, before dropping it. This is important for smart bombs, which can precisely hit a target. But often the targets have civilians nearby so a smaller explosion will kill the enemy and minimize civilian casualties.
The ATK demonstration bomb had three different settings, with the lowest creating a blast radius 40 percent less than at full power. This works by having the explosives split up in different compartments inside the bomb. For lower power, some of the explosives are ignited, using a lower power detonator that sets them to burn, like a rocket, rather than exploding. Modern explosives, like C-4, have long been used by troops as fuel, to boil water, by lighting them, rather than using an explosive detonator. Not recommended, but done anyway since before the Vietnam War. ATK has a bomb design that takes advantage of this. The navy spent $10 million to find that it was possible to produce a workable version of a variable explosive 223 kg (500 pound) bomb but in the meantime other solutions had turned up.
These low-lethality smart bombs and missiles do reduce collateral casualties among nearby civilians, but that has not stopped ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups from regularly using civilians as human shields. When these civilians are killed while serving, involuntarily, as human shields, the Islamic terrorists deem them “involuntary martyrs” to their cause.
Such human shield tactics do not work against many nations, who consider hiding among civilians a cowardly and futile tactic. These nations, most Moslem states, as well as Russia, will attack despite the presence of civilians. During the Syrian civil war the Assad (Syrian government) and Russian forces regularly carried out artillery and airstrikes against civilians, mainly to drive the civilians away and deprive the rebels and Islamic terrorists of the support they could obtain from a civilian population. Assad forces did this to terrorize all civilians that were not pro-Assad and that was a principal reason for about twenty percent of Syrians to flee the country after 2011. That was fine with the Assads, who do not want these civilians to return and eventually support another uprising.