Hypersonic missiles: what to know about the Russian weapon fired at Ukraine

This isn’t the first time Moscow has deployed its Kinzhal hypersonic missile during its invasion, but it appears to be a relatively rare occurrence.

Russia said it used the Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine in mid-March – a claim later confirmed by US officials on CNN – in the first known use of the weapon in combat.

In March, US President Joe Biden confirmed Russia’s use of the Kinzhal missile, describing it as “a consequential weapon … it is nearly impossible to stop it. There is a reason why they are using it.”
Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin downplayed the missile’s effectiveness, telling CBS in March that “he would not have seen it as a turning point”.

And the UK Defense Ministry previously said the Kinzhal missile is actually just an air-launched version of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), which Russia has used repeatedly in its war against Ukraine.

Here’s what to know.

Why the fear and hype about hypersonic missiles?

First, it is important to understand the term.

In essence, all missiles are hypersonic, which means they travel at least five times the speed of sound. Almost any warhead released from a rocket miles away into the atmosphere will reach this speed on its way to its target. It is not a new technology.

What military powers including Russia, China, the United States and North Korea are working on is a hypersonic scrolling vehicle (HGV). An HGV is a highly maneuverable payload that can theoretically fly at hypersonic speed while adjusting course and altitude to fly under radar detection and around missile defenses.

A truck is the almost impossible weapon to stop. And Russia is considering having a truck in its arsenal, the Avangard system, which Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 called “virtually invulnerable” to Western air defenses.

A Russian Air Force MiG-31K jet carries a Kh-47M2 Kinzhal high-precision hypersonic aero-ballistic missile during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow, Russia on May 9, 2018.
But the Kinzhal, as a variant of the Iskander SRBM, is not a truck. Although it has limited maneuverability like the Iskander, its main advantage is that it can be launched from MiG-31 fighter jets, giving it a longer range and the ability to attack from multiple directions, according to a report last year from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The MiG-31K can strike from unpredictable directions and could avoid interception attempts altogether. The flying transport vehicle may even be more survivable than the mobile Iskander system on the road,” the report said.

The same report also noted that the ground-launched Iskander proved vulnerable to missile defense systems during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, during which Azerbaijani forces intercepted an Armenian Iskander.

“This suggests that claims about Kinzhal’s invulnerability to missile defense systems may also be somewhat exaggerated,” the report said.

Does Ukraine have missile defenses?

the The United States and its NATO allies are already sending several surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine to aid in its defense.

According to a senior US official in March, these additional systems included the Soviet-era SA-8, SA-10, SA-12, and SA-14 mobile air defense systems.

In April, the UK pledged £ 100 million ($ 123 million) of high-quality military equipment, including others Anti-aircraft starstreak missiles. Weeks later, Germany said it would supply Ukraine with 50 anti-aircraft tanks.
And the United States is preparing a giant $ 40 billion aid package that would include additional anti-aircraft capabilities for the Ukrainian army.

Why did Putin use the Kinzhal missile?

Use in Ukraine marks the combat debut for the Russian Kinzhal system.

“On March 18, the Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aerobalistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse of Ukrainian troops’ aviation missiles and ammunition in the village of Delyatin, in the Ivano-Frankivsk region,” he told the era the Russian Defense Ministry.

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US officials later confirmed to CNN that Russia fired hypersonic missiles at Ukraine and was able to track the launches in real time.

The March launches were likely intended to test weapons and send a message to the West about Russian capabilities, multiple sources told CNN.

By that time, the war on the ground in Ukraine had become something of a stalemate. Russia may be on the hunt for victories it could advertise.

The UK Ministry of Defense said at the time that Moscow probably deployed the Kinzhal to “belittle the lack of progress in Russia’s land campaign”. Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, used similar language in his CBS interview in March, saying Putin was “trying to restore some momentum.”

By the end of March, the United States estimated that Russian forces were short of air-launched cruise missiles, according to a US defense officialwho said there were indications that Russia was seeking to preserve that inventory as part of its dwindling inventory of precision-guided ammunition.

CNN’s Brad Lendon wrote and reported from Seoul. Tim Lister and Julia Presniakova reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Tara John wrote in London.