‘Flying Ginsu’ Missile Won’t Resolve US Targeted Killing Controversy

Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed a noteworthy development in the US targeted killing program: a modified Hellfire missile that strikes without exploding, reportedly leaving those close to the target unscathed. The CIA and the US military have used the hitherto secret weapon at least a half-dozen times in recent years to kill terrorism suspects in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, the Journal reported.

Proponents tout the missile, called the R9X, as a game-changer that can spare more civilian lives than traditional Hellfires. But the new technology can only be as good as the intelligence and the rules that guide it. On its own, the R9X won’t resolve the host of legal issues surrounding the US targeted killing program, which since 2002 has killed thousands of people with scant transparency. Key issues include the definition of a lawful target, the question of which body of international law applies in targeted killings, and the vast disparities between governmental and non-governmental estimates of civilian casualties.

Dubbed the “Flying Ginsu,” after the kitchen knives long hawked on American television, the R9X is armed with a “halo of six long blades” that can pierce through obstacles such as buildings and car roofs before shredding its target, the Journal reported. The impact radius is so limited that the missile can kill a passenger in the front seat of a moving vehicle while sparing the driver, the Journal said. The traditional Hellfire, in contrast, is similarly accurate but its warhead explodes on impact, destroying objects and civilians within several meters.

The R9X, developed under President Barack Obama to reduce civilian casualties, has been used by the CIA and the US military since at least 2017, the Journal reported. Like the traditional Hellfire, the R9X apparently is laser-guided and can be launched from traditional aircraft or from remotely piloted drones. Drones are the US weapon of choice for targeted killings because they can loiter for extensive periods to better distinguish military targets from civilians without risk to human operators, who often are based thousands of miles away.