Highlights

  • Speculation that USA's Hellfire R9X missile violates international law
  • Growing speculation since missile reportedly used to kill al-Qaeda chief
  • R9X Ninja missile's features compared to weapons banned by global pacts

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Dating back over 100 years, there have been multiple international agreements banning certain types of weapons.

When America reportedly used a non-exploding missile to kill al-Qaeda's chief terrorist, it left the world stunned. This is because the missile was fitted with swords, and they apparently shredded Ayman al-Zawahiri to death. But ever since the killing of the 9/11 terrorist, there has been speculation whether USA's secret 'Ninja' missile is actually illegal.

Dating back over 100 years, there have been international agreements banning certain types of weapons. Weapons which use non-detectable fragments to injure targets are banned under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, 1980. Explosive projectiles weighing less than 400g are prohibited under the St Petersburg Declaration, 1868.

Bullets that expand or flatten inside the target's body are banned under the Hague Declaration of 1899. Cluster munitions are prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, 2008. Incendiary weapons are banned by Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, 1980. Explosive remnants of war are controlled through the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

Mines, booby traps, other devices are banned by the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, and the Convention on Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines. Blinding laser weapons are prohibited under the Conventional Weapons Convention, and poisoned weapons are banned by the Hague Regulations of 1907. Chemical weapons are prohibited under the Geneva Protocol of 1925, and the Convention on Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 1993. Similarly, biological weapons are banned by the Geneva Protocol, and the Convention on Prohibition of Biological Weapons, 1972.

To see whether America's Ninja missile falls under any of these, let's take a look at its features first.

The Ninja missile is officially the Hellfire R9X and it doesn't contain explosives, but has sharp blades. It is designed to slice and shred its targets. 6 razor-sharp blades are fitted inside the missile's fuselage. They pop out seconds before the missile makes impact, shredding anything in their path. The R9X is informally called 'Ninja Bomb' and 'Flying Ginsu' - a reference to knives sold in the US in the 1970s and 1980s.

So, does the R9X violate international law?

International treaties ban weapons that injure their targets using fragments which cannot be detected in the body through X-rays. It is unclear if the R9X's blades detach, break, and get embedded in the target's body, and whether they can evade X-rays. Another type of illegal weapons are projectiles which explode upon impact, but the Ninja missile does not contain explosives. A sinister weapon prohibited under international law is cluster munitions.

These disperse small bomblets over a wide area, but the R9X doesn't fall in this category as it does not have submunitions. Bullets which flatten or expand easily in targets' bodies are also banned, but the R9X has no known projectiles. Another banned category is incendiary weapons used to set fire to non-military objects or cause injury to civilians. But America's Hellfire R9X missile does not involve any fire-causing chemical reaction.

America has never publicly revealed details about the Ninja missile, despite apparently having used it on multiple occasions. What's known about the R9X has come out through source-based news stories. The missile is used sparingly, and against top enemies of the United States.

These include Ayman al-Zawahiri, the chief of al-Qaeda who was killed in July 2022 in Afghanistan's Kabul. Before him, it was Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian military general killed in Iraq's Baghdad in January 2020. A year earlier, al-Qaeda operative Jamal al-Badawi was killed in Yemen's Sanaa. In March 2017, the Ninja missile was used the first time against al-Qaeda commander Abu al-Khayr al-Masri in Syria's Idlib.

The Hellfire R9X does not appear to be illegal. But in case a country uses banned weapons, then the International Criminal Court at The Hague can hold a trial. Alleged violations can also be tried in national courts.

Although international treaties cover many conventional weapons, the world now needs to get together and regulate a new class of dangerous weapons - autonomous arms with artificial intelligence.

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