Russia’s biggest air attack in weeks hit targets across Ukraine on Thursday, using a sophisticated barrage of weaponry. Among them, the Ukrainian Air Force said, were six of Russia’s hypersonic air-launched missiles, known as Kinzhals, or Daggers – the most used in a single wave since the war began a year ago.
The following are the main questions raised by the use of the new missiles.
First, what are hypersonic missiles?
Hypervelocity missiles are long-range, highly maneuverable munitions capable of reaching speeds of at least Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound, or more than a mile per second. This speed renders conventional air defense systems essentially useless, because by the time they are detected by ground-based radars, they are almost already on their target.
China and the United States are racing to develop and deploy hypersonic missiles. Other countries are also working on the technology, including Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea.
How does Kinzhal work?
The hypersonic prototype vehicle carries its warhead into minimal space atop a conventional long-range missile. After separating, it uses gravity to gain tremendous speed as it descends to Earth. The craft may be a non-motorized glider, or it may be a cruise missile that uses gravitational acceleration to ignite a special scramjet that carries it hundreds of miles further.
Kinzhal is a little different. It is a modified version of the Russian Army’s short-range Iskander ballistic missile, and is designed to be launched from truck-mounted launchers on the ground. Launching the missile from a warplane at high altitude, rather than launching it from the ground, leaves it with more fuel to use to reach higher speeds.
Aside from being able to reach supersonic speeds after being launched from the air, the Kinzhal is believed to behave like an Iskander launched from the ground, meaning that it is able to maneuver to make interception difficult. Some Iskanders can also trigger pre-impact decoys which are designed to further confuse air defense radars.
The traditionally armed Iskandars are believed to carry about 1,500 pounds of explosives.
What else is known about Kinzhal?
Russia originally developed the Kinzhal missile to breach US anti-missile defense systems and claims it can reach speeds of Mach 10 or more. The Pentagon said it was launched by MiG-31 warplanes.
Moscow initially said it deployed the Kinzhal missile to Ukraine nearly a year ago in an attack on an underground weapons dump, and has periodically announced its use since then.
There is another hypersonic missile that Russia claims to have in its arsenal: the Zircon, a ship-launched cruise missile. But Russia did not report the experience of firing zircon during the exercises It was announced by President Vladimir Putin in JanuaryIt is not known to have been used in combat.
Why are the Kinzhals so worried about Ukraine?
Ukraine does not have weapons capable of shooting down Kinzhals, according to Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force.
Their use on Thursday significantly increased the rate of Russian missiles hitting targets. Of the 81 missiles launched by Russia overnight and into the morning, Ukraine said 47 hit their targets, which was higher than usual. Ukraine noted that Russia also fired more ballistic and cruise missiles than usual, a possible factor in the increase in successful strikes.
What are the limits of Kinzhal?
Targeting coordinates are loaded into the missile’s operating system before launch, and because of the tremendous speed it achieves in flight, any small deflection—for example, a control surface on a wing that moves too little or too little—can cause a significant deflection from the target. This may explain why one of the Kinzhals was apparently hit by a car in Kiev on Thursday, rather than a target of greater military importance.
Like any hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal’s flight path reaches the upper regions of Earth’s atmosphere before returning to Earth for precision maneuvers. It can be detected by sensors in space, though US defense officials say these systems are insufficient against hypersonics.
Why would Russia use so much of its hypersonic arsenal in one wave?
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency estimated that, prior to Thursday’s launch, Russia had no more than 50 Kinzhals, Mr. Inat said. Why Russia decided to launch six of them – potentially more than a tenth of its total arsenal – is unclear.
“For one reason or another, they needed a result” this time, said Mr. Ehnat.
But Russia may be able to resupply the Kinzales with relative ease. Since the Kinzhal is just a modified version of an existing rocket, it may be easier to produce it than, say, more Zircons, which would have to be built from scratch.
Will using Kinzal change the war?
Not necessarily, even if Russia could produce more Kinzal relatively quickly. Although more Russian missiles than usual passed by Thursday, the air war alone would not be decisive.
By comparison, Russia is causing far more destruction with the thousands of artillery shells it fires into Ukraine.
The ground war remains in a grinding stalemate. Many analysts say Russia’s long-awaited spring offensive has already begun, but it has little effect because its forces and arsenals are so depleted.
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