Experts say the Russian hypersonic missile Kinzhal is not a 'hypersonic weapon.' Here's why

The missile is not hypersonic in the modern sense.
Ameya Paleja
Kinzhal 1920.png
A Kinzhal missile during Victory Day Parade in 2018

Wikimedia Commons 

In March this year, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that it had used its hypersonic Kinzhal missile during the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The announcement was nothing more than a marketing gimmick to pump Russia's position as a defense supplier, Sandboxx News reported last week.

Hypersonic weapons are the new frontier of the arms race. Countries like China and North Korea have announced successful testing of their weapons based on this technology, while the U.S. has been a laggard. Russia, too, tested its hypersonic missile, Tsirkon, twice last year. However, the Kinzhal missile used in the conflict is not a hypersonic missile.

In purely technical terms, a hypersonic missile can travel at Mach 5 or higher speeds, i.e., five times the speed of sound, and the Kinzhal manages that. However, the modern definition of hypersonic weapons extends beyond the speed of the traveling missile as it also encompasses the flight path taken by the weapon and how the projectile moves towards the target.

What is a hypersonic weapon?

Modern hypersonic weapons are classified mainly into hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles. An HGV is similar to traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), where high-velocity rocket boosters carry them into the atmosphere. A glider is deployed and then travels at hypersonic speeds and travels towards its target at such speeds after reentry.

A hypersonic cruise missile requires advanced propulsion systems called supersonic combusting ramjet (scramjet), which requires air to flow through a ramjet engine at supersonic speeds. In theory, hypersonic cruise missiles can take a horizontal path toward their target. However, weapons based on this technology are still developing, so nobody truly knows how they will work.

Where does Kinzhal fit in?

Short answer, neither.

Russia's Kinzhal or Kh-47M2 is an air-launched ballistic missile that dates back to the Soviet era. While it entered service in 2017, it is a modified version of the ground-launched short-range ballistic missile, 9K720 Iskander, with a new guidance system.

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The 9K720 Iskander was in development in the 1980s, but the fall of the Soviet Union delayed its testing and entry into service to 2006, Sanboxx News said in its report. When deployed, both the 9K720 and the Kh-47M2 can achieve hypersonic speeds and maneuver their trajectories to reach their targets. However, that does not make them hypersonic weapons.

To compare, the AIM-54 Phoenix missiles that the U.S. military has retired were also capable of reaching speeds of Mach 4.3. With a much larger solid fuel rocket motor, it is hardly surprising that Kinzhal can travel to Mach 10, as Russia claims. If Kinzhal is dubbed hypersonic, then so are all ballistic missiles in the U.S. stockpile, and even SpaceX's Falcon 9 is a hypersonic rocket.

The space shuttle regularly exceeded Mach 25 during its missions. If the definition of hypersonic weapons is narrowed, the U.S. achieved supremacy in this area many decades ago.

Why is Russia doing so?

The Sandboxx report states that Russia is well aware of these technical differences. However, as an exporter of defense equipment, the country needs to showcase that it can deliver modern weapons rapidly and is harping on the ignorance of the public at large about this domain to maintain its image.

With a defense budget of $60 billion annually, Russia is a major spender on its military and needs its weaponry sales to continue allocating significant sums yearly.

With international sanctions hitting hard, Russia must ensure its military exports continue through these turbulent times. If that requires marketing a ballistic missile as a hypersonic one, then so be it.

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