Home » Russia’s Kinzhal was Never an Unstoppable Hypersonic Missile, but the Patriot Shot that Killed One is Still ‘Impressive,’ Expert Says
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Russia’s Kinzhal was Never an Unstoppable Hypersonic Missile, but the Patriot Shot that Killed One is Still ‘Impressive,’ Expert Says

The Ukrainians recently did what the Kremlin said was impossible and shot down an advanced Russian Kinzhal missile, according to the US and Ukrainian militaries.

A missile defense expert called the intercept by a Patriot missile “impressive,” for both the advanced American-made missile defense system and its Ukrainian operators. It’s concrete evidence that the powerful Kinzhal missile was never what Russia claimed it was. The manufacturer, Rostec, previously claimed “there is no countermeasure to our missiles.”

Similarly, Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu said last August, as he announced the use of the Kinzhal in Ukraine, that “no one else has such a missile yet: hypersonic, and with such speed, and with such penetrating capabilities,” arguing, per the state media readout, “it is impossible neither to detect it nor to intercept.”

And in December, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is commanding operations in Ukraine, boasted it was “invulnerable to air defense capabilities deployed in Ukraine.” 

The general had a point, at least until the Patriot air defense systems that the US said it would provide only a day earlier arrived in theater last month. 

A general view of a mobile defence surface-to-air missile system, Patriot, before it is transported to Poland from Gnoien, Germany January 23, 2023.
A general view of a mobile defence surface-to-air missile system, Patriot, before it is transported to Poland from Gnoien, Germany January 23, 2023. 

The MIM-104 “Patriot” Air Defense Battery, the weapon used to shoot down the Kinzhal in Ukraine last week, is a surface-to-air missile system designed to, as the US Army characterized it, “engage and intercept any aerial threats whether it be aircraft or tactical ballistic missiles under any weather conditions.”

The Patriot’s phased-array radar is capable of tracking up to a hundred targets at once out to ranges in excess of 150 kilometers and guiding up to nine missiles at a time. As an effective and reliable missile defense system, the Patriot is in use in well over a dozen countries and has been tested in combat, according to a congressional report on missile defense for Ukraine.

The Patriot air defense system, a complex capability manufactured by US defense companies, “is one of the world’s most advanced air defense systems, and it will give Ukraine a critical long-range capability to defend its airspace,” a senior Department of Defense official said when the US announced it would send a Patriot battery to Ukraine.

While the Patriot is exceptionally capable, it is far from perfect, and some weapons were thought to be beyond its grasp.

The KH-47M2 Kinzhal, though often described as a hypersonic missile, is an advanced air-launched ballistic missile sharing design features with the Russian ground-launched 9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missile, which Russia began working on in the late 1980s. The conventional version of the Kinzhal, which is also nuclear capable, carries over a 1,000 pounds of explosives.

Kh 47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic
MiG-31BM supersonic interceptor equipped with a Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile. 

As Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed a suite of new weaponry in a 2018 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, he boasted about the capabilities of the recently fielded Kinzhal, Russian for “dagger.”

Putin said that “the unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes.” 

The Russian leader further stated that “the missile flying at a hypersonic speed, ten times faster than the speed of sound, can also maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory,” which “allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers.”

The Kinzhal missile system, as Putin described it in his address, sounds deadly and quite unbeatable. But because Russia has a tendency to make hyperbolic claims about its weapons, it is unclear which of these stats on the Russian missile are accurate. That one of Russia’s Kinzhal missiles was shot down over Ukraine calls into question these vaunted claims. 

‘Nothing is unstoppable’

The Kinzhal is not a “hypersonic” weapon, as Moscow often claims, which is to say the Kinzhal is not part of a new class of hard-to-kill missiles that exclusively includes highly maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles able to maintain hypersonic speeds throughout most of the flight.

Many ballistic missiles, like the Kinzhal, have the capacity for hypersonic flight, sometimes at speeds actually faster than so-called “hypersonic weapons,” and can achieve some maneuverability, but they don’t have a sustained hypersonic flight ability, experts say, nor do they create headaches for defenders in the same way.

That said, the Kinzhal is an advanced system adapted to be launched from the MiG-31, a high-speed Russian combat aircraft, at speed and altitude, and, per the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Threat project, the missile’s “speed, in combination with the missile’s erratic flight trajectory and high maneuverability, could complicate interception.”

But as a ballistic missile, the Russian missile is still technically within the Patriot’s range of capabilities, as was recently demonstrated, and Kyiv said as much in calls for the American-made system.

“We have no means that can counter such missiles,” Kyiv’s Stratcom Centre, part of the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security of Ukraine, said of the Kinzhal about a month before the Patriot arrived in Ukraine. “The American Patriot air defense system is capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. That is why it is so important that this air defense system arrives in Ukraine as soon as possible.”

That assessment proved decidedly accurate, and on Tuesday, following earlier confirmation by the Ukrainians after an initial denial, Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said that he could “confirm that they did down a Russian missile by employing the Patriot missile defense system.” The Pentagon official acknowledged the missile was the Kinzhal.

Patriot Missiles behind a barbed wire fence
A Patriot missile battery 

Even if the Kinzhal isn’t what Russia claims, shooting one down is a “big deal,” Tom Karako, the director of the missile defense project at CSIS, told Insider, explaining that Russia’s advanced Kinzhal missile is “probably on the edge” of the Patriot’s capabilities.

Semantics aside, “this is a capable missile,” he said, and that the Russian missile was taken out by a Patriot system is “a testament to [the Patriot’s] capabilities.”

Characterizing the intercept as “impressive,” Karako noted the Patriot’s ability to bring the missile down and the degree of difficulty in doing so depended on a variety of factors, specifically “what the heck the missile was doing at that exact couple-second window when the interceptor was in the basket.” That’s an unknown.

Still, “this is an important first,” he said, pointing out “it should be a sufficient reason to temper some of the, I guess, just hyperbole about the Russian missile system.”

“Nothing is unstoppable. Nothing is perfect,” Karako said. “And maybe everybody can take a lesson away from this. There’s probably a whole lot of claims about unstoppability and exotic kind of stuff, but it turns out American hardware, including American air and missile defense hardware is pretty good.”

The Ukrainians agreed after the recent success.

“They were saying that the Patriot is an outdated American weapon and Russian weapons are the best in the world,” Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said over the weekend, per reports.

“Well, there is confirmation that it effectively works against even a super-hypersonic missile,” he added, exaggerating the Kinzhal’s capabilities before calling the recent intercept a significant “slap in the face for Russia.”

Source : Business Insider