The Pentagon’s sword missile isn’t an endless war feel-good story

Kelsey Atherton has penned a brief but incisive article for Responsible Statecraft on the rarely-used but much-discussed Hellfire R9X, colloquially known as the “sword missile.”

Instead of delivering an explosive payload, the Hellfire R9X releases several blades in the seconds before impact. Targets are thus “pureed,” according to Atherton, without the risk of collateral damage common to explosive weapons. The appeal of such a missile is obvious. After almost two decades of fighting in the Middle East, minimising civilian harm is not only a moral obligation for the US military but also vital to maintaining support and legitimacy domestically and internationally. By killing the target and only the target, it is arguably easier to legitimise a program of targeted killing otherwise infamous for its legal ambiguities. Who could oppose a weapon which promises perfect adherence to International Humanitarian Law, despatching the enemy with near-zero risk to civilians? Kelsey Atherton, for one.

Claiming that the US “cannot engineer its way out of the so-called “War on Terror,” Atherton questions the techno-solutionism that regards more precise and less destructive weapons as the answer to destructive wars. After all, how precise is a weapon that accurately hits the wrong target? A guided missile cannot overcome misguided intelligence.

No technology is developed in a vacuum – it is the product of the political processes and strategic concerns instigating it. Weapons are no exception. Tinkering around the edges to adjust the type of warhead carried by a missile does not answer the question of why that missile is being used in the first place. Finessing and refining techniques to conduct war ‘perfectly’ thus arguably distracts from the logic guiding that war in the first place.

“Focusing on the missile,” claims Atherton, “specifically misses everything that puts a missile in the sky.” Perhaps technological solutions to political problems are no solutions at all.


Atherton, K. (2020, July). The Pentagon’s sword missile isn’t an endless war feel-good story. Responsible Statecraft.