The Story of the Secret “Flying Ginsu” Weapon

CIA and the Department of Defense have been using a secret weapon against individual targets to minimize civilian casualties.

A recent report from the Wall Street Journal confirmed rumors that a secret new weapon, known as a “flying ginsu” or “ninja bomb”, was developed by the Department of Defense, designed and built by Lockheed Martin engineers and used against individual targets in at least two confirmed cases by both the CIA and the Pentagon in the last three years. 

The weapon is an altered Hellfire missile, whose original purpose was to serve as an anti-tank weapon in the 1980s. After 9/11, unmanned attack aircraft were equipped with Hellfire missiles and used against targets in the Middle East. During the Obama administration, drone strikes increased exponentially and unnecessary civilian casualties were the subject of a report from Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Emmerson reported that U.S. drone strikes may have violated international humanitarian law due to a high civilian casualty rate. The Intercept reported that “Between January 2012 and February 2013, U.S. special operations airstrikes [in northeastern Afghanistan] killed more than 200 people. Of those, only 35 were the intended targets. During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” 


The six blades pictured here in this diagram of the Hellfire R9X missile deploy and shred anything in it’s path. The front end is an inert warhead composed of more than 100 lbs of metal. It requires a lot of geolocation data to be so precise as to hit an individual in a moving car on the left side or right side, without killing other passengers. This is a weapon of individual assassination, used only against high-value targets by the Pentagon and the CIA. (Image courtesy of Roque Ruiz, WSJ.)

The design evolution of the Hellfire turned into the Hellfire R9X, whose defining feature is a ring of six blades that deploy right before a payload of 100 lbs of metal strikes the target from the sky without exploding. Designed to puncture through automotive vehicles and buildings, the Hellfire R9X’s inert warhead was designed to decrease collateral damage and minimize civilian casualties under orders from the Obama administration. 

The Hellfire with an explosive warhead would leave behind obliterated remains of vehicles and an area of scorched earth.

The Hellfire with an explosive warhead would leave behind obliterated remains of vehicles and an area of scorched earth, similar to the wreckage caused by a U.S. drone air strike pictured here from 2012. (Image courtesy of Khaled Abdullah and Reuters.)
Photo from the 2017 bombing of al Qaeda no.2 leader Abu Khayr al-Masri in northwestern Syria. (Image courtesy of New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.)

Photo from the 2017 bombing of al Qaeda no.2 leader Abu Khayr al-Masri in northwestern Syria. You can see the difference in pinpoint accuracy and levels of collateral damage. (Image courtesy of New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness.)

Though details are sketchy, what is known is that the Hellfire R9X has been in development since 2011 and is very rarely used. The WSJ was able to confirm that the Hellfire R9X has been used twice. In 2017, it was used against Egyptian national Ahmad Hasan Abu Khayr al-Masri (pictured above), second-in-command of the al Qaeda in Idlib Province by a CIA-operated aircraft. In 2019, the weapon was used against Jamal al-Badawi, a Yemeni al Qaeda operative who the Pentagon alleged was behind the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole at a Yemeni port, which killed 17 US sailors. 

Lockheed Martin and Missile Design

MQ-1 Predator drone

MQ-1 Predator drone armed with Hellfire AGM 114 missiles flying over Afghanistan. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.)

Though precise data about how the Hellfire RX9 works is obviously unavailable, information about the Hellfire missile is relatively plentiful. The Apache attack helicopter and the MQ-1 Predator drone both share the Hellfire AGM 114, the RX9’s predecessor, as their primary weapons. A good way to think of these missiles is as though each were a small unmanned aircraft. The Hellfire has a guidance computer, propulsion system and steering control with a high-explosive payload and copper-lined warhead powerful to penetrate the armor of any tank in the world. Both the Apache and the MQ-1 Predator share design characteristics: the missiles are carried on firing rails connected to pylons mounted on each wing. Prior to launching, the original Hellfire missile would receive instructions from the Apache’s computer, including the fire signal. After the fire signal is received, the missile’s propellant is activated and burned until approximately 500 pounds of force are generated. Then the missile breaks away from its rail, and begins accelerating. The force of acceleration triggers an arming mechanism and as soon as the missile’s impact sensor comes into contact with the target, the warhead is exploded. In a previous version of the Apache Hellfire system, a laser guidance system for the missile worked like this: the Apache gunner aimed a high-intensity laser beam with a unique coded pattern that pulses on and off. The Apache computer transmits the laser pulse pattern to the missile prior to firing, and the missile’s laser seeker (built into the nose) that detects the reflected laser light and heads straight towards it. The guidance system makes course corrections by moving the flight fins of a Hellfire missile. 

The problem is that cloud cover or other obstructions can block the laser beam, and if the missile goes through cloud cover, it can lose track of the target. The Hellfire II fixed these problems by using a radar seeker. The chopper’s radar finds the target, and the missiles zero in on it. Radio waves aren’t obscured by clouds, making the likelihood of a precise strike greater.

Presumably the Hellfire RX9 works in a similar manner, although it’s easy to suspect that there’s a lot more geolocation data involved to maintain such precision.