What to know about hypersonic missiles fired by Russia at Ukraine
A Russian bomber fired three hypersonic missiles at the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa on Monday night, Ukrainian officials said, as part of a barrage that leveled a number of civilian targets including hotels and a shopping mall.
It is not the first time Moscow has deployed its Kinzhal hypersonic missile during its invasion, but it does appear to be a relatively rare occurrence.
Russia said it used Kinzhal missiles Ukraine in mid-March — a claim later confirmed by US officials to CNN — in the first known use of the weapon in combat.
In March, US President Joe Biden confirmed Russia’s use of the Kinzhal missile, describing it as “a consequential weapon … it’s almost impossible to stop it. There’s a reason they’re using it.”
Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, has downplayed the effectiveness of the missile, telling CBS in March that he “would not see it as a game-changer.”
And the UK defense ministry has previously said the Kinzhal missile is really just an air-launched version of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), which Russia has used repeatedly in its war on Ukraine.
Here’s what to know.
Why the fear and hype about hypersonic missiles?
First, it’s important to understand the term.
Essentially, all missiles are hypersonic — which means they travel at least five times the speed of sound. Almost any warhead released from a rocket miles in the atmosphere will reach this speed heading to its target. It is not a new technology.
What military powers — including Russia, China, the United States and North Korea — are working on now is a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). An HGV is a highly maneuverable payload that can theoretically fly at hypersonic speed while adjusting course and altitude to fly under radar detection and around missile defenses.
An HGV is the weapon that’s almost impossible to stop. And Russia is thought to have an HGV in its arsenal, the Avangard system, which Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 called “practically invulnerable” to Western air defenses.
But the Kinzhal, as a variant of the Iskander SRBM, is not an HGV. While it does have limited maneuverability like the Iskander, its main advantage is that it can be launched from MiG-31 fighter jets, giving it a longer range and the ability to attack from multiple directions, according to a report last year from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The MiG-31K can strike from unpredictable directions and could avoid interception attempts altogether. The flying carrier vehicle might also be more survivable than the road-mobile Iskander system,” the report said.
The same report also noted that the ground-launched Iskander proved vulnerable to missile defense systems during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, during which Azeri forces intercepted an Armenian Iskander.
“This suggests that claims of the Kinzhal’s invulnerability to missile defense systems may also be somewhat exaggerated,” the report said.
Does Ukraine have missile defenses?
The United States and its NATO allies are already sending several surface-to-air missiles systems to Ukraine to aid in its defense.
According to a senior US official in March, these additional systems included the Soviet-era SA-8, SA-10, SA-12 and SA-14 mobile air defense systems.
NATO member Slovakia has also sent more modern S-300 missile defense batteries to Ukraine.
In April, the United Kingdom promised £100 million ($123 million) worth of high-grade military equipment, including more Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles. Weeks later, Germany said it would supply 50 anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine.
And the US is preparing a mammoth $40 billion aid package that would include additional anti-aircraft capabilities for the Ukrainian military.
Why did Putin use the Kinzhal missile?
Use in Ukraine marks the combat debut for Russia’s Kinzhal system.
“On March 18, the Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aeroballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse of missiles and aviation ammunition of Ukrainian troops in the village of Delyatin, Ivano-Frankivsk region,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said at the time.
US officials later confirmed to CNN that Russia launched hypersonic missiles against Ukraine and were able to track the launches in real time.
The launches in March were likely intended to test the weapons and send a message to the West about Russian capabilities, multiple sources told CNN.
At that point, the war on the ground in Ukraine had become something of a stalemate. Russia may have been looking for victories it could tout.
The UK defense ministry said at the time that Moscow probably deployed the Kinzhal to “detract from a lack of progress in Russia’s ground campaign.” Austin, the US defense secretary, used similar language in his CBS interview in March, saying Putin was”trying to reestablish some momentum.”
By the end of March, the US assessed that Russian forces were running low on air-launched cruise missiles, according to a US defense official, who said there were indications that Russia was trying to preserve that inventory as part of its declining stocks of precision guided munitions.
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