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Russia Used its Hypersonic Kinzhal Missile in Ukraine. But What Exactly Is it?

Kinzhal missile aboard a Tu-22M3 bomber.

Much international media attention was paid earlier this spring when it was announced that Russia, for the first time, used the hypersonic Kh-47M2 “Kinzhal” (“Dagger”) ballistic missile to target a Ukrainian weapons and ammunition depot around the town of Deliatyn in southwestern Ukraine.

Yet despite all the attention, many have misunderstood the meaning of both this missile and its use.

Hypersonic Weapons are Largely Unstoppable

The Kinzhal is one of six new “unstoppable” weapons Vladimir Putin announced in recent years. Formally unveiled in 2018, it is essentially a refitted version of the ground-launched 9K720 Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile. It can carry either a nuclear or conventional payload and has a range of roughly 1,500-2,000 kilometers. 

As an air-launched variant of the aforementioned Iskander, it has greater range, deployability, and flexibility over ground-based Iskanders. Experts with CSIS’ Missile Threat program suggest that the Kinzhal was likely developed to more easily target European infrastructure and to possibly counter U.S. missile defense systems such as THAAD.

The Kinzhal is currently fit to be loaded on MiG-31s. Following launch, it rapidly accelerates to Mach 4 and can then reach speeds of up to Mach 10. Along with its speed, it has an erratic flight trajectory and high maneuverability, making it potentially difficult to intercept.

However, there isn’t much very special about the weapon, as many vehicles and missiles are technically “hypersonic.”

As Alex Hollings of Sandboxx News has put it:

“That means all of the ICBMs in America’s nuclear stockpile, all of Russia’s Kinzhal missiles, and even Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 reusable rockets all share the distinction of being hypersonic… and in fact, Russia’s Kinzhal missile has more in common with those applications than it does with the new slew of ‘hypersonic weapons’ nations like Russia, China, and the United States are competing to field.”

Hypersonic Speed is not Unique to this Missile

In reality, hypersonic is used in this instance by the Russian military and Putin to scare the population. The Kinzhal does not fit into either of the two meaningful categories in today’s “hypersonic arms race.” These weapons usually fit into one of two categories: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) or hypersonic cruise missiles

HGVs are launched into the atmosphere using high-velocity rocket boosters, then deploy one or more glide vehicles. These vehicles rely on momentum from the launch and control surfaces to manage their high-speed descent into a target.

Hypersonic cruise missiles utilize a scramjet – supersonic combusting ramjet – propulsion system, which requires air flowing through the missile’s engine at supersonic speeds. Thus, these missiles have to be either deployed from fast-moving aircraft or launched using a different form of propulsion in the first part of their flight path. To date, no country has fielded one of these weapons.

Nowhere does Russia’s Kinzhal fit into these classifications. Although the Kinzhal enjoys some advantages over its ground-launched Iskander cousin, and while it is scientifically accurate to call it a hypersonic missile, its use is more a marketing tactic for Russia. This is something the country needs, as its defense industry is constantly under pressure to be seen as a worthy competitor to the United States. Further, as funds dry up from abroad due to international sanctions, export revenue from weapons and defense-related items remains a key source of income for Russia and its development of stalled projects like the T-14 Armata tank and Su-57 stealth fighter.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.

Written By

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.



  1. Takki

    June 17, 2022 at 3:45 am

    Bulshitt article!

    • Fluffy Dog

      June 17, 2022 at 10:26 am

      no, Takki, the “bullshitt” is in your head. The article is right on. It should have added that Kinzhal’s accuracy is just as bad as Iskander’s.

  2. Evan Vrysoulis

    June 23, 2022 at 4:59 pm

    How does a diplomacy graduate know anything about missiles?

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