Six keys to the Kinzhal hypersonic missiles used by Russia in its massive attack on civilians in Ukraine

A Russian fighter jet equipped with a Kinzhal hypersonic missile like those used in Thursday’s attacks on Ukraine (DEF File)

This week’s new massive Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine had a particularity: the use of six Kinzhals (“daggers”) hypersonic missiles, the most Russia has used in a single attack since it began its invasion of Ukraine more than one year old

The novelty produced a series of questions that international and military specialists from The New York Times John Ismay, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Andrew Kramer have tried to answer clearly and simply with the information available so far.

1 – What are hypersonic missiles:

“Hypersonic missiles are projectiles with a long range and great maneuverability, capable of reaching speeds of at least Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, that is, more than a kilometer and a half per second,” they explained. And they add that “this speed makes traditional air defense systems practically useless, because when they are detected by ground radars, they are almost at their target. China and the United States are competing to develop and deploy hypersonic missiles. Other countries are also working on this technology: Germany, Australia, Brazil, North Korea, South Korea, France, India, Iran, Israel and Japan”.

Kiev, Kirovohrad, Dnipro, Odessa, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsia were the targets of 81 missiles launched by Moscow early Thursday morning. Six of them were hypersonic.

2-How the Kinzhal missile works

“The Kinzhal is a modified version of the short-range ballistic missile iskander of the Russian Army, designed to be fired from truck-mounted launchers on the ground. Launching the missile from a high-altitude warplane, rather than from the ground, leaves you with more fuel that you can use to reach higher speeds.

Aside from its ability to reach hypersonic speeds upon airdrop, the Kinzhal is believed to behave like a ground-launched Iskander, meaning it is capable of maneuvering to make it difficult to intercept. Some Iskanders can also drop pre-impact decoys, designed to further confuse air defense radars.

The conventionally armed Iskanders are believed to be carrying around 1,500 kilos of explosives.

Russia originally developed the Kinzhal to disrupt US missile defense systems and claims it reaches speeds of Mach 10 and above. The Pentagon has claimed that it is launched by MiG-31 warplanes.

Moscow first said it had deployed the Kinzhal to Ukraine nearly a year ago in an attack on an underground weapons depot, and has since regularly claimed responsibility for its use.

There is another hypersonic missile that Russia claims to have in its arsenal: the Zircon, a cruise missile that can be launched from ships. However, Russia has not reported carrying out test launches of the Zircon during exercises announced by President Vladimir V. Putin in January, and it is not known to have ever been used in combat.


3- Why are the Kinzhals so worrying for Ukraine?

The specialists quoted Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, who admitted that “Ukraine does not have weapons capable of shooting down the Kinzhals.”

Thanks to Kinzhalks and a higher proportion of ballistic missiles and a smaller proportion of cruise missiles, Thursday’s attacks hit their targets at a higher rate than usual. As reported by Ukraine, 47 of the 81 missiles hit their targets.

4- What are the limitations of the Kinzhal?

“Target coordinates are loaded into the missile operating system prior to launch, and due to the enormous speed it achieves in flight, any small deviation—for example, a wing control surface moving too much or too little— can cause a significant variation of the target”, explains the note from The New York Times. That could clarify why one of the missiles hit a car in kyiv, instead of a target of greater military importance.

5- Why would Russia use so much of its hypersonic arsenal in a single wave?

Ukraine’s military intelligence agency estimated that Russia had, before Thursday’s attacks, no more than 50 Kinzhals. So in a single attack he would have used more than 10 percent of his arsenal.

“For one reason or another, they needed a result” this time, the Ukrainian Air Force spokesman said.

“But it is possible that Russia will be able to replenish the Kinzhals relatively easily,” the NYT specialists stated. “Since the Kinzhal is simply a modified version of an existing missile, it might be easier to produce than, say, creating more Zircons, which have to be built from scratch.”

The site where one of the Russian missiles fell in kyiv (REUTERS / Gleb Garanich)
The site where one of the Russian missiles fell in kyiv (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich) (GLEB GARANICH/)

6-Will the war change the use of Kinzhals?

Not necessarily, although Russia can produce more Kinzhals relatively quickly. Despite more Russian missiles than usual passing through on Thursday, an air war alone will not be decisive.

By comparison, Russia causes much more destruction with the thousands of artillery shells it fires into the Ukraine.

And the ground war remains in a stalemate. Many analysts say Russia’s long-awaited spring offensive is already underway, but is having little impact because its troops and arsenals are so depleted.

© The New York Times 2023

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