New Delhi: It took two secret precision missiles — fired from a MQ9 Reaper drone — to take down al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. But what is significant are the pictures that subsequently emerged on social media showing no sign of an explosion or collateral damage despite the airstrike taking place at a residential neighbourhood in Kabul.
— Sardar Sattar (@SardarSattar) August 2, 2022
It is believed that the US used its tried and ever dependable MQ-9 Reaper drones — manufactured by General Atomics — the unmanned aerial vehicle that India is in talks with the American government for acquiring.
But what makes this operation interesting is the use of a high precision missile that comes without an active warhead.
According to experts in the Indian defence and security establishment, the missile that has been used in the strike was the Hellfire R 9X — nicknamed the ‘flying Ginsu’ — for its blades that can cut through buildings or car roofs to reach the target. It is also known as the Ninja Bomb.
Formally known as the AGM-114R9X, the missile has an inactive warhead unlike its commonly used variants.
The ‘flying Ghinshu’ is a reference to a popular brand of knives sold on TV infomercials in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the US, that showed them cutting through tree branches and tomatoes.
According to a 2019 report by the Wall Street Journal, the missile was born of an emphasis, under former American President Barack Obama, on avoiding civilian deaths in long US campaign of airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and other places.
This missile is used sporadically and only employed in specific circumstances, particularly when a senior terrorist leader has been pinpointed but other weapons would risk killing innocent bystanders.
The conventional Hellfire variants are more typically used against groups of targeted individuals or against a so-called high-value target who is convening with other militants.
Instead of a warhead, the R9X comes with 45 kg of reinforced metal in its tip with six extendable blades that open up close to impact.
These blades are designed to shred the target upon impact without triggering a blast.
When ‘flying Ghinshu’ was previously fired
Associated Press reported that use of Hellfire R9X first emerged in March 2017 when senior al Qaeda leader Abu al-Khayr al-Masri was killed by a drone strike while travelling in a car in Syria.
The car did not have much damage except for an entry hole and a rack in the windshield but the target was killed. This was unlike earlier strikes where the car would be blown to smithers and also cause collateral damage.
The same missile was believed to have been used in January 2019 when a US airstrike in Yemen killed the suspected mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, Jamal al-Badawi.
In the case of Zawahiri’s death, it has been reported that the al Qaeda leader was standing alone on the balcony of his Kabul residence when the US drone launched the two Hellfires.
India’s pursuit of Reapers remains stuck
India’s quest for MQ-9 Reaper drones continue to remain stuck due to pricing issues and lack of any actual Transfer of Technology (ToT).
As reported by ThePrint in November 2021, the US has offered India a discount in the proposed $3-billion deal for 30 such armed and unarmed drones, while also offering to set up a maintenance and repair (MRO) centre that will cater to all such American systems in the region.
Last year in March, the Navy, Army and Air Force — after being impressed with the performance of two leased Sea Guardian drones — finally agreed on jointly procuring 30 armed versions of the American unmanned aerial system.
The Sea Guardians are the unarmed version of the Reapers and are used for surveillance.
Sources said that given the extreme cost of these drones, India is keen on actual ToT that will help it to make its own armed drone programme a success.
“The US has offered a discount and is also offering to set up an MRO facility. We are still in talks for real ToT which will be beneficial,” a source said when asked about an update on the proposed acquisition.