Russia’s Kinzhal 47-M2 air-to-surface hypersonic ballistic missile was supposed to be a cutting-edge technological marvel that could penetrate any air defense system according to the Kremlin. Instead, the missile has not lived up to the hype.

President Vladimir Putin announced Russia’s new generation of six “invincible” weapons during his annual State of the Nation speech in March 2018, one of which was the Kinzhal which was billed as a hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile capable of defeating all known air defense systems.

At the time many believed his assertion and thought Kinzhal would be a game-changer on the modern battlefield. The high level of failures during its use to attack Ukrainian cities has indicated that was simply a hollow boast.

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This begs the question as to why the weapon, designed by some of Russia’s highly regarded missile technologists and engineers, performed so badly. So poor has been its performance that some of those involved were charged with treason as it failed to live up to its reputation.

A recent study by Chinese military strategists looked at every element of the missile to try to understand what was the problem. They had a vested interest, of course, as it is strongly believed that China had used the Kinzhal along with other Russian military technology, as the starting point for their latest weapon systems including China’s own next generation hypervelocity weapons. Their findings and assessment prove to be interesting reading.

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What is a hypersonic missile?

As a June 2023 briefing note prepared by the UK’s parliament points out, there is no universally accepted definition for the term “hypersonic missile” and the note's own definition is that it’s “a missile that travels within the Earth’s atmosphere for sustained periods at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound,” is considered somewhat simplistic by most experts.

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The US-based Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation provides a definition that it feels “differentiates today’s emerging class” of hypersonic weapons. It describes “boost-glide” weapons that are initially launched to leave the earth’s atmosphere in a ballistic trajectory, using a rocket booster. They then re-enter and are guided to their targets along a pre-programmed flight path. That said, it is believed that some newer and next-generation missiles can have both their targets and course changed in flight.

A missile is a true hypervelocity missile if it can undertake evasive maneuvers, to mask its true objective and overcome air defenses at speeds of between Mach 5 (1.5 km/s) and Mach 25 (7.4 km/s). In what is loosely referred to as the “cruise” phase, the missile uses some form of onboard engine, such as an air-breathing scramjet engine, to maintain its speed.

Under this definition, most analysts conclude that the Kinzhal is not a true hypervelocity weapon, as they suggest that it only achieves hypersonic speed because of the effect of gravity as it exits its ballistic trajectory and is then unable to effectively maneuver.

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Launch Platform

To date the Kinzhal missiles launched against Ukraine have been from modified MIG-31K (NATO name Foxhound) interceptor aircraft. It has been suggested in some forums that Russia could have modified the SU-34 (NATO name Fullback) fighter-bomber to carry and launch the Kinzhal. While in theory they could also employ the missile from TU-22M3 (NATO name Backfire) medium-range bombers neither case has yet been detected in Ukraine.

The initial assessment was that modification of the SU-34s gave them an ability to deploy the weapon in a standoff mode, outside of the current Ukrainian air defense umbrella. Several had been lost delivering “iron bombs” against Ukraine’s front line – it was reported that one was shot down on Jan. 22, 2024. Analysis of Russian and Ukrainian battlefield reports suggest that Russia has already lost at least 25 percent of the 120 or so SU-34’s it had at the start of the full-scale invasion.

While the SU-34 is a much newer airframe than the MIG-31, it is not viewed as an ideal carrier for the Kinzhal. For optimum performance the missile needs to be launched at as high an altitude and as high a speed as possible to provide maximum initial kinetic energy, giving the missile a head start in its acceleration.

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The SU-34 is slower than the MIG-31 and struggles to carry the Kinzhal, which weighs around 4,300 kilograms (9,500 pounds), which severely impacts the fighter-bomber’s all-around performance

Vulnerability

The Chinese analysis considers that the Kinzhal, which was designed in the 1980s, is outdated. And should more accurately be called a ballistic missile. Its trajectory is pinched off at only 50 kilometers which, combined with the fact that it is not genuinely hypersonic, gives it a limited facility for long-distance gliding and the inability to maneuver laterally increases its exposure to interception.

The authors are almost derisory when they comment on the fact that so many Kinzhal have been taken down by the US Patriot system which, although it has been considerably updated since its first introduction, is based on the SAM-D missile system first developed in the 1970s. The first reported shootdown by Ukraine was over Kyiv in May 2023 and there have been more since then.

Most experts advocate ground-launched missiles as being superior to air-launched ballistic missiles as they can be larger, have greater range and even accuracy. While those like Kinzhal have the advantage of being deployed from a non-fixed and therefore, in theory, offer a less predictable direction of attack, modern air defense surveillance assets, such as those available to Ukraine, can identify and follow the missile-carrying aircraft before launch making interception easier than when the concept was first introduced.

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While it has been pointed out that Ukraine has only managed to take down around a third of the Kinzhals launched since the start of the war, recent incidents suggest that newly introduced Ukrainian electronic warfare (EW) capability may have as much if not more success than its air defense missiles.

A massive attack was launched on Ukraine on Jan. 2, using almost 100 missiles and drones, including 10 Kinzhals. According to after action reports none of the Kinzhals reached their targets on that occasion. While some were struck by Patriot or other western supplied air defense missiles there is strong evidence to suggest that EW also impacted their performance.

This was born out during two further attacks on Jan. 8 and 13 when, while only 40 percent of the dozen or so Kinzhal launched were shot down, the Ukraine Air Force spokesperson said on Telegram that none reached their intended targets, suggesting that EW had again interfered with the missiles’ navigation and targeting.

Guidance and accuracy

Kinzhal, as with most air-launched hypersonic missiles rely on satellite navigation systems to continuously provide accurate guidance coordinates to the missile to correct route deviation in real time. While Moscow boasted about the accuracy of the weapon, experts consider the GLONASS global navigation satellite system, Russia’s GPS equivalent, inadequate for this purpose. It is assessed that of 133 satellites launched to support the system, only 24 are currently operational which may be an insufficient number to provide the necessary navigational accuracy, which in the case of the Kinzhal “was not very high to begin with,” and, therefore the “accuracy [of the Kinzhal] is unsatisfactory.”

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In addition to performance defects of the Kinzhal, the cost of building more and the impact of Western sanctions on key components prevents a substantial increase in the numbers available, and the limited number of Russian Kinzhal missiles available, faced by comprehensive Western surveillance and intelligence assets helps Ukraine in its defense against the weapon.

The Chinese analysts view was “The West’s overwhelming information technology advantage over Russia… [made it] possible to detect and determine its attack intentions… in advance and use integrated [air defense] systems to intercept them.” They also infer that Russia should have been more selective in the targets it engaged, the failure of which allowed Ukraine to shrewdly position its counter-Kinzhal defenses around the most obvious strategic targets.

The warhead

According to the Ukrainian Defense Express publication, the 480-kilogram Kinzhal warhead, which contains 150 kilograms of octogen (HMX) high explosive has no conventional impact fuse. It is detonated by a two-stage electronic system armed by and powered by the missile's computerized control unit linked by wires to the detonator of the main charge. The missile’s detonation system is readied sometime after launch at a safe distance and then the second stage comes online and prepares the missile for impact.

Kinetic energy of the heavy warhead is designed to penetrate the target allowing the explosive payload to function deep inside the objective. It is likely that if hit by an interceptor the linkage from the control center to the detonator is disrupted preventing the warhead from functioning. It is also possible that an EW attack could render the computer control system inoperative taking the missile off target and preventing functioning of the warhead.

Of the 10 Kinzhals brought down on Jan. 2, the warheads of three failed to function and were later cleared by Ukrainian military engineers. The other seven detonated on impact in open areas away from targets.

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