The Russian military has tested a new air-launched hypersonic missile that reportedly can travel as fast as Mach 10 over a distance as great as 1,200 miles, all while maneuvering.
If those specs are accurate, the Kinzhal missile—a modified version of the surface-launched Iskander rocket—could punch right through even the most sophisticated NATO air defenses to strike ships, air bases, ports, and supply depots with a non-nuclear warhead.
That deep-strike capability could give Russian forces a major advantage in the event of war in Europe. “The Kinzhal has no analogues in the world,” the Russian Defense Ministry boasted.
That’s true, but not necessarily for the reason the Kremlin claims. It’s possible that other countries haven’t duplicated Kinzhal… because they don’t want to.
“You can basically just stick a ballistic missile on an aircraft," James Acton, a physicist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Daily Beast. But strapping a rocket to a plane doesn’t necessarily make for an effective, scalable weapon.
It’s possible Kinzhal is a sort of shortcut hypersonic munition that while fast enough to evade enemy defenses, also lacks the maneuverability to accurately strike targets at long range.
In that case, Kinzhal could be more useful as a vehicle for propaganda than as a vehicle for high explosives. Unless, of course, Moscow intends to fit a nuclear warhead to the new missile. Acton said Kinzhal could be "dual-capable"—that is, compatible with both atomic and non-atomic warheads.
Russian President Vladimir Putin first hinted at the air-launched Kinzhal's existence during a March 1 address in which he described several new conventional and nuclear weapons that he said would deter a nuclear attack on Russia.
A video that played during Putin’s speech depicted a twin-engine MiG-31 fighter launching a large missile. The video included an animation of the missile striking what appeared to be a U.S. Navy warship.
Nine days later, on March 10, the Russian Defense Ministry published a video depicting a separate MiG-31—the fighters are distinguishable by the color-coded numbers on their fuselages—firing the same kind of missile. The test apparently took place near Volgograd in southwest Russia.
“The launch was conducted normally,” the ministry stated. “The missile hit the target at a training ground.”
Highly publicized tests are one thing. Developing and fielding a practical, non-nuclear weapon in sufficient quantities to alter the balance of power in Europe is quite another. Babak Taghvaee, an expert on Russian warplanes, claimed in a tweet that just six MiG-31s have received the modifications necessary to carry the approximately 25-foot-long Kinzhal.
Another four to six MiGs would undergo modification by the end of 2018, Taghvaee tweeted.
Taking into account maintenance demands and the tendency of both planes and missile to break down mid-flight, the MiG-31 squadron could probably launch just a few Kinzhals at a time, Pavel Podvig, an expert on the Russian military, told The Daily Beast.
“We’re talking about isolated launches—two or three or six missiles at a time,” Podvig said. “That doesn’t give you a lot of operational capability.”
By comparison, U.S. warships launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at one airfield in Syria as part of the Trump administration’s April 2017 retaliation for the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons attacks.
Moreover, it’s unclear just how maneuverable Kinzhal is. And that has big implications for its usefulness as a conventional weapon. The surface-launched Iskander rocket, on which Kinzhal is based, can hit targets as far as 300 miles away. Launching from tens of thousands of feet in the air from a fighter flying hundreds of miles per hour lends Kinzhal its much greater reported range of 1,200 miles.
But a munition traveling at 10 times the speed of sound would need to be highly accurate in order to strike a distant target. At high speed, even a small course error can translate into a wide miss when the weapon hits the surface.
China and the United States are also developing hypersonic weapons that fly faster than five times the speed of sound. Most American and Chinese hypersonic prototypes have small wings, giving them the ability to maneuver like airplanes do and correct their courses better than a strictly cone-shaped rocket can do.
One exception is the U.S. Army’s experimental Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, which is conical and—like Kinzhal—uses the same engine as a ground-based rocket.
Kinzhal is largely cone-shaped but does features small fins. It might not be capable of effectively changing course, Acton said. “If Kinzhal has maneuvering capability, then I absolutely would call it a genuine hypersonic weapon.”
Otherwise, it’s mostly for show, something you build “to say you can,” according to Acton.