The commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Europe says Russia has used hypersonic weapons in its war on Ukraine.
- The weapon, known as Kinzhal, is actually a modified land-based missile.
- The use of Kinzhal may have been a demonstration of power to NATO, or it might have been an act of desperation.
Russia has used several hypersonic weapons in its invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the senior U.S. general in Europe told lawmakers last week. Specifically, Russia’s Aerospace Forces have launched several Kh-47 Kinzhal (“Dagger”) hypersonic weapons against alleged Ukrainian military targets. The use of the weapons on relatively unprotected targets, however, may signal that Russia is running low on other precision-guided weapons.
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Moscow first claimed it used a Kinzhal hypersonic weapon system on March 19, targeting an arms depot in Delatyn, located in western Russia. Another confirmed use was against a fuel depot in Mykolaiv on the Black Sea. General Todd Wolters, who serves as both the military commander of NATO and the head of U.S. forces in Europe, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that hypersonics were used to “put fear into the hearts of Ukrainians.”
Kinzhal was one of a raft of new weapons announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018. It is actually an Iskander-M short-range aeroballistic missile mated to a heavy fighter jet. The Iskander-M is a 26-foot-long, three-foot-wide missile typically fired from a truck transporter/erector/launcher vehicle. Iskander-M, compared to other ballistic missiles, has a range of just 310 miles. That means that, unlike longer-range missiles, the missile and warhead never exit the atmosphere for a temporary cruise through low-Earth orbit.
The MiG-31 Foxhound, a Cold War-era long-range supersonic interceptor originally designed to defend Soviet airspace from incoming American bombers, acts as carrier vehicle for the Kinzhal. The MiG-31 has both the room to carry the missile and the ability to launch it from higher altitudes, where the air is thinner and there is less friction (and heat buildup) acting against an object flying at hypersonic speeds.
Kinzhal is the first of the new generation of hypersonic weapons to be used in combat. Keep in mind, however, that almost any ballistic missile is technically a hypersonic weapon, as the missile and warhead reach Mach 5 or more. The Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, for example, can deliver warheads against targets more than 6,000 miles away—much farther than Kinzhal—at a top speed of Mach 23. In that sense, Ukraine has also used hypersonic weapons, as it has used Tochka-U short-range ballistic missiles against several targets, including an airfield at Millerovo, Russia and an unconfirmed attack that sank a Russian Alligator-class landing ship on the Black Sea.
Kinzhal was developed as a weapon to penetrate advanced air defenses, striking targets that other aircraft and missiles can’t reach. Although Ukraine’s air defense system is proving useful against cruise missiles and aircraft, it operates no such system that can intercept Kinzhal. Exactly why the Russians are doing it is open to interpretation: Gen. Wolters believes it’s being used as a terror weapon against Ukraine. Others believe that the use of such an advanced weapon system is a warning to NATO to stay out of the conflict.
One theory is much less complimentary. Early on in the war, Russia was forecast to run out of precision-guided weapons—including Kalibr-submarines and Kh-101/102-air launched cruise missiles—fairly soon. Although Russia has fairly advanced weapons, it hadn’t built up a large wartime stockpile. Russia has fired more than 1,000 missiles, but recently has been using missiles like the P-800 Oniks missile to attack land targets.
Oniks is an expensive missile primarily designed to attack ships at sea, and the use of this system to strike land targets is only explainable if Russia is running out of other missiles. Russia’s use of very expensive Kinzhal hypersonic missiles to attack a mere fuel depot might look impressive, but it could be yet another sign the Russian war machine is running out of steam.