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The morality of the Hellfire

New missile technology makes for a warfare that is more just


MQ-9 Reaper drone Photo by Mehdi Fedouach, Pool via Associated Press

The morality of the Hellfire
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The missiles that killed al Qaeda terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri on a balcony in Kabul, Afghanistan, over the weekend were in all likelihood fired from a MQ-9 Reaper, a remote piloted hunter-killer aircraft employed by the U.S. Air Force and CIA for a variety of missions including intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, close air support, and—as with the al-Zawahiri hit—precision strikes. Over the last two decades, remote piloted aircraft like the Reaper—and its predecessor the Predator—became signature weapons of the war against terror. Christians should be glad they did.

A fundamental demand of moral warfare is discrimination, which requires warfighters to make basic distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. Only combatants may be intentionally targeted and any likely harm to non-combatants must be minimized. The technological and operational characteristics of America’s Predator and Reaper programs have proved a boon for enhancing the U.S. military’s ability to discriminate so that civilians are nor endangered.

For instance, a Reaper with a full weapons load can loiter above a target for some 14 hours. Replace some of the weapons with external fuel tanks and some sources boast that the Reaper’s capacity to stay on target can extend to nearly two days. Operationally, this is indispensable. On strike missions, flight crews can take the necessary time to confirm or deny that the person they are tracking is a legitimate target. An array of sensors, including a highly sophisticated thermographic camera, assists such surveillance. The video technology on the onboard camera is said to be so exquisite that license plates can be read, or persons identified, from several miles away.

Consider how this capability played out in the al-Zawahiri strike. U.S. intelligence officials reported that earlier this year the terrorist leader’s wife, daughter, and grandchildren were relocated to a safe house in a Kabul neighborhood. Over time, it was later established that al-Zawahiri himself was also present at the residence. Along with confirmation of al-Zawahiri’s identity, officials were able to discover “patterns of life” that they were able to exploit in planning the strike operation—including establishing that al-Zawahiri was in the habit of reading alone in the early morning on the balcony on which he was ultimately killed. This intelligence work was in all likelihood heavily assisted by Reaper crews using the platform’s unique capabilities.

Reaper crews need a weapons system that can be deadly to the enemy and yet do no harm to others. U.S. technological and operational innovations have provided them one.

Even with the intelligence in hand, however, the strike operation would face a problem. However salutary a Reaper’s ability to linger over a target is, it comes to nothing if you can’t destroy that target without harming others. Avoiding non-combatant casualties is particularly challenging in a crowded urban environment, to say nothing of an occupied home. Reaper crews therefore need a weapons system that can be deadly to the enemy and yet do no harm to others. U.S. technological and operational innovations have provided them one.

While the Reaper can carry a variety of ordnance with a range of destructive power, it most often employs Air-to-Ground Hellfire missiles. Despite its evocative name, the Hellfire missile is a lower-yield anti-armor and anti-personnel weapon that causes relatively low-collateral damage, providing a discriminating option for strikes. But the Hellfire can still create a destructive radius too excessive in certain circumstances. However, the pair of missiles that killed al-Zawahiri were not ordinary Hellfires.

Because after-strike images of the balcony on which al-Zawahiri was killed show no signs of an explosion, it is widely assumed he was hit with the R9X, a Hellfire variant that relies on the kinetic energy of its warhead—with a significant assist from its pop-out blades—to destroy its target. The R9X—colloquially known as the Ninja Bomb or Flying Ginsu—does not explode. Instead, it is a 45-kilogram precision-guided anvil that drops from the heavens at nearly a 1,000 miles an hour and in which are stowed a halo of six long blades that deploy through the missile’s skin seconds before impact, crushing and shredding the target.

While grim, even ghastly, there is a certain genius to the R9X design. Terrorists like al-Zawahiri quickly adapted to U.S. airstrikes by shielding themselves with women and children as they hid among civilians. This puts Reaper crews in the morally perilous position of sometimes having to compromise either discrimination or mission effectiveness—there are certain targets that simply can’t be allowed to get away. The R9X, however, so precise that it can kill the passenger in a car while leaving the driver untouched, allows the crew to continue the fight without betraying their moral principles.

In light of our growing awareness of the moral hazards of war, weapons systems that allow the men and women who fight our wars to avoid the trauma of killing those they never meant to harm are to be welcomed. Like armor for the body, discriminating weapons—and the will to use them discriminately—provide protection for our warfighters’ souls.


Marc LiVecche

Marc LiVecche is the McDonald Distinguished Scholar of Ethics, War, and Public Life at Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy. He is also a non-resident research fellow at the U.S. Naval War College in the College of Leadership & Ethics. He is the author of The Good Kill: Just War and Moral Injury.

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