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

Reporters are fascinated by a weapon that purportedly results in fewer instances of collateral damage, but its existence as a byproduct of endless war is often overlooked.

The United States cannot engineer its way out of the so-called “War on Terror.”

With the 2001 AUMF just months away from its 19th birthday, the endless and shifting wars it has authorized, from the ground in Afghanistan to the skies above Yemen, continue largely unchecked. It is all but certain that the wars will continue into the spring of 2021, spanning at least six presidential terms and possibly a fourth presidency. 

It is this durability of the present condition, of the persistent war, that makes stories about the R9X “sword missile” so compelling. If the war is unchanging, then at least there is news in how the war is fought. And that news is the existence of a drone-fired missile that kills, not with explosives, but with blades.

To describe the R9X missile honestly is to step into a Verhoevian satire of war reporting. 

The R9X is a variant on the Hellfire anti-tank missile. It is a machine that creates “kinetic effects” by releasing blades before it impacts a body, instead of the traditional mess of an explosion. This enables it, in theory if not always in execution, to puncture the roof of a car while spinning, blades out, pureeing a human being in the passenger seat while potentially leaving the driver intact, save for the life-long trauma from the experience.

As specifically formulated, the R9X is a harm-reduction tool. It is a weapon at the pointy, deadly end of a targeted kill chain, but because it uses blades and impact force instead of a car-scattering explosion, it produces less collateral damage than a conventional explosion.

That construct, that series of “would you like to know more?” factoids, tells the story of the Forever War, but it mostly tells it by omission. What a weapon does in use is only part of a much longer story, about why the weapon was developed, about the way people are using it, and about the political considerations that fostered both the conflict and the development of the weapon itself.

When the Wall Street Journal first reported on the R9X sword missile in 2019, it noted that “the missile was born of an emphasis, under former President Obama, on avoiding civilian deaths in long U.S. campaign of airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen and other locales.”

As reported at the time, this reduction in civilian casualties was built into the larger rationale of counter-insurgency operations, where civilian casualties undermine support within and outside countries for the continuation of the war. But the weapon followed another logic, which is that the groups targeted by the United States adapted to the threat of aerial assassination by hiding in crowds of civilians, forcing the human gunners remotely operating drones to decide if the kill was worth the subsequent tragedy and outcry.

A weapon that can kill people in one car, without threatening people in the area around the car, provides a temporary workaround, until the tactics of the insurgents targeted change again.

When the New York Times discovered the R9X in a story published June 24, it put the blade missile in the context of an overall approach aimed at minimized deaths and injuries, saying “the use of this type of missile falls in line with the American military’s push to use smaller munitions to kill targets, made apparent during the recent air campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in an effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

Missing from this assessment is both the recent and the long history of how the “War on Terror” has been fought from the sky. 

The defining feature of the targeted killing campaign, across administrations, has been opacity. To the extent that there has been any transparency, it exists in brief windows: a brief voluntary push by the Obama administration in 2016 to disclose more details about airstrikes, and after 2018, modest transparency mandated by Congress.

The same Pentagon that argued for the sword missile as part of a smaller munitions push also made “lethality” the centerpiece of its mission and acquisitions programs as the Trump administration took office.  

A focus on the specific tools of the “War on Terror” misses the larger question lurking behind the tech: toggling the size of the bombs, or the kinds of missiles used, is largely irrelevant to the continuation of the forever war, or its end.

Focusing on the missile specifically misses everything that puts a missile in the sky, ready to be used against a human being. It constrains the moral debate to one about relative collateral damage within a targeted killing program, instead of questioning the accuracy of the intelligence that informs the targeting in the first place. It concedes that the practice, now in its third decade, of remotely operating drones with cameras and weapons attached is a way of providing security for anybody.

Technology is undeniably a key part of the story, but a narrow focus on the technology makes the coverage a kind of anti-news, as it merely rehashes the assumptions baked into years of war. 

If there is a story to tell with a weapon like the sword missile, it is this: the political will exists to repeatedly design new weapons to continue the same war. What is missing in the halls of power, even if it’s present in the general public, is the will to accept that new weapons will not suddenly make the wars winnable.