Is Russia’s Kinzhal Missile Actually Hypersonic?

Is the Kinzhal hypersonic missile combat-ready and as capable as Russia claims?
KINZHAL

Russia launched its first hypersonic missile in Ukraine against an arms depot, raising alarms worldwide about the use of hypersonic weapons.

Now, it is believed that Russia is trying to give an impression of invincibility by launching a missile that has never been used in combat before and that there’s still no anti-missile system in existence that can reliably stop them.

But… Is the Kinzhal missile as advanced as Russia is letting us believe?

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What are hypersonic weapons?

Hypersonic weapons are the ones that can exceed Mach 5 (about 6,100 km/h or 3,800 mph). It means they can fly 5 times faster than the speed of sound.

The particularity of hypersonic missiles is that their speed, maneuverability, and the altitude they reach make them unstoppable for current defense systems.

Hypersonic rocket complex Avangard
Hypersonic launch by Russian Federation. Licensed under CC BY 4.0

For example, extremely effective missiles like the Tomahawk travels at Mach 0.74, and a specialized missile like the Patriot gets Mach 4.1. But a hypersonic missile like the Khinzal surpasses unconfirmed speeds of Mach 12, twelve times faster than the speed of sound, or 14,817.6 km/h (9,207.23 mph).

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The Kinzhal hypersonic missile

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is a Russian hypersonic ballistic missile capable of holding nuclear warheads and maneuvering along all sections of its trajectory.

The Kinzhal missile entered service in 2017, and it was designed to counter NATO warships and defensive systems.

Kinzhal has the following specifications:

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  • Warhead weight: up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) 
  • Engine: Solid fuel rocket engine
  • Operational range:  1,200 miles / 2,000 kilometers (from MiG-31K launcher) – 1,900 miles / 3,000 kilometers (from Tu-22M3 launcher)
  • Flight ceiling: 20 kilometers (66,000 feet)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 12 (12,300–14,700 km/h; 7,610–9,130 mph)
  • Accuracy: 1 meters (3 feet)

But… Is the Kinzhal missile a real hypersonic weapon?

Indeed, the Kinzhal is a hypersonic weapon, but the curious thing about this missile is that it couldn’t have the modern hypersonic technology that is just beginning its development phase. And with the present condition of the Russian military, it seems very unlikely that they could leapfrog everyone in hypersonic technology.

1024px Bumper 8 nasa rocket footage colorized and remastered.jpg to File Bumper 8 nasa rocket footage colorized and remastered
The first manufactured object to achieve hypersonic flight by NASA. Public Domain.

The Kinzhal works as a ballistic missile, and this technology is definitely not new. Indeed, ballistic missiles with hypersonic speed aren’t as modern as they seem and they have been around since the 1980s.

On the contrary, modern weapons using hypersonic technologies are still being tested, like the hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) that use scramjet technology. An example of this new technology would be the DARPA’s HAWC scramjet missile currently under development by Raytheon or the European Perseus.

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US Navy 020530 O 0000X 001 Cruise Missile Testing NASA
Hypersonic cruise missile engine by DARPA/ONR/NASA. Public Domain.

Additionally, military experts believe that Russia may have exaggerated the capabilities of this air-to-surface weapon because it’s hard to believe that a ballistic missile has such high accuracy of 1 meter or 3 feet at speeds exceeding Mach 10.

Hypersonic weapons can’t be stopped by air defense systems

These missiles are a relatively novel type of weapon on the battlefield, and only a few countries in the world can develop, build and operate this type of weaponry. Among them is China, which made its first hypersonic weapon test in 2021, and Russia, which put them into service in 2017.

Military specialists remark that hypersonic weapons have a particular psychological and propaganda effect.

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For this reason, Russia began employing the Kinzhal missile as they know that there’s no anti-aircraft defense system able to destroy the missile if it is as advanced as Russia claims, not even in the American arsenal.

Existing missile defense systems could hardly intercept such missiles. Only some missiles like the SM-6 missile are effective against hypersonic missiles like the Kinzhal.

The Kinzhal is a real threat not only for Ukraine but for the whole NATO

Russia is ready to use new weapons. With hypersonic missiles, it put the entire world on alert – and the launch of the Kinzhal hypersonic missile is just a tiny fraction of what may come in the future if the war continues for months or even years.

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Featured image credit: 2018 Moscow Victory Day Parade by The Presidential Press. Licensed under CC by 4.0