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Anatomy of the Hellfire that killed Zawahiri in Kabul

On 2 August, the US killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a drone strike in Afghanistan, using a Hellfire R9X missile fired by a drone. It does not use any explosive warhead, and hence causes minimum collateral damage. Mint explains the use of stealth attacks.

What exactly is Hellfire?

The aim of the Hellfire R9X is to minimize civilian deaths, and reportedly, it was pressed into action when the former US president Barack Obama was in office. It is thus a modified version of the Hellfire missile that was designed as an anti-tank weapon in the 1980s and later modified several times, especially after the 9/11 attacks, to target terrorists across the Middle East. An Hellfire R9X missile, for instance, was used to kill Al Qaeda’s then-second ranking leader Abu al Khayr a Masri – Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law in Syria in 2017, the Wall Street Journal had reported.

Why is there so much buzz over Hellfire?

Designed to be launched from an unmanned drone (or even a helicopter), the Hellfire R9X is a ‘kinetic kill’ missile or projectile. It hits the chosen target at a very high velocity. However, instead of an explosive warhead, it deploys six blade-like metal contraptions to kill its target. It goes by nicknames like “the flying Ginsu” or “the Ninja bomb”. These are very accurate missiles. They measure less than 4.5 feet in length and do not weigh more than 50kg. They can be fired up to 7.5 miles away and use a combination of laser and millimeter wave (MMW) technology.

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Strike from the skies

How does Hellfire R9X missile work?

Its “fire and forget” radar allows operatives to select the target using a laser beam and retreat without having to keep it focused. This is why Hellfire stands for Heliborne, Laser, Fire and Forget Missile. Hellfire RX9 stabs its rotating blade-like contraptions into the target at very high velocity. It is so precise that it would not kill anyone unless the person is exactly behind the target.

Are  there laws to stem abuse of such attacks?

Currently, there are no global laws or treaties between nations to regulate the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered drones. In many humanitarian crises, they are used to provide assistance to survivors as has been seen in case of war-ravaged Ukraine. UN’s aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization has been pleading with nations to create a global database of all drones. In December 2021, the UN discussed plans to ban autonomous weapons but failed to get a majority approval.

Are there lessons for Indian policymakers?

India has seen use of drones to blast targets but nothing like Hellfire. Two explosives-laden drones crashed into the Indian Air Force station at Jammu on 27 June, 2021. In India, UAVs are not allowed within 25 km of the international border including the Line of Control (LoC), Line of Actual Control (LAC), and Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). However, there are some areas marked as red zones in the airspace map for drone operations. That said, missiles like Hellfire know no boundaries.

 

 

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