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Does Russia’s Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile Have American ‘DNA’?

Kinzhal missile aboard a Tu-22M3 bomber.

Russia is using large parts of its military arsenal to try and achieve something that at least looks like a victory in Ukraine. It seems that Moscow’s much-hyped Kinzhal hypersonic missile has at least some fascinating American origins. This long-form piece below breakdown the evidence and what Moscow is trying to achieve: 

Russia caught the world’s attention with the deployment and subsequent use of their “hypersonic” Kinzhal missile against targets in Ukraine. Now, evidence is mounting to suggest that Russia’s high-speed, headline-grabbing Kinzhal may actually be guided into its targets using Western — potentially even American — hardware.

Leveraging independent analyses of Russian weapon systems recovered in Ukraine conducted by U.K.-based think tanks the Royal United Services Institute and Conflict Armament Research, we’ve attempted to assess the likelihood that one of Russia’s highest-profile weapons may actually carry Western components. Based on the evidence available, we cannot say with 100% certainty that the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile does, but we’re surprised to report that it seems exceedingly likely.

Bottom Line Up Front: The Kinzhal’s probably got American hardware inside it

Systems found within at least five different Russian missiles, including the Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile that serves as the basis for Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, have been proven to contain components illegally sourced from several American technology firms.

Because Russia uses the same systems and components across a wide variety of advanced weapons to reduce costs, it seems very likely that American components would have found their way into the Kinzhal missile as well.

“The discovery of US electronic components/technology in Russian weapons systems is a continuation of Russia’s version of industrial and military espionage.” former CIA officer and Marine veteran Jason Lyons told Sandboxx News.

“Whether it is lack of know-how or resources, Russia has long perfected the art of stealing the smart kid’s homework and handing it in as their own.”

“Killjoy” — Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal “hypersonic” missile

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, NATO reporting name Killjoy, entered operational service in 2017, according to Russian statements made in 2018. It isn’t really a new weapon, so much as a modified version of the ground-launched Iskander-M—a short-range ballistic missile — with a guidance system updated for air-to-ground operations.

The 9K720 Iskander system’s development began in 1988, but prolonged delays, brought about initially by the fall of the Soviet Union, prevented the first full flight test until 1998. A total of 13 missile test launches were conducted at Russia’s Kasputin Yar test range between 1998 and 2005, with the system finally entering operational service in 2006.

Like the Kinzhal, the Iskander-M missile achieves hypersonic velocities through a quasi-ballistic flight path that never departs the atmosphere, and Russia claims that it can maneuver throughout its trajectory to avoid being intercepted. The Iskander-M ballistic missile and Kh-47M2 Kinzhal are indeed capable ballistic weapons, but they’re a far cry from the cutting-edge technology usually referenced in conversations about hypersonic missiles. The premise behind the Kinzhal missile is a pretty dated one — so much so that it shares a great deal in common with a 2006 NASA effort to leverage the Navy’s stockpile of retired AIM-54 Phoenix missiles for hypersonic flight testing.

Modern hypersonic weapons fall into one of two categories: Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles and scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles. It’s actually extremely common for ballistic missiles to achieve hypersonic velocities, so it isn’t really the speed that makes hypersonic weapons special. Rather, it’s their ability to maneuver in unpredictable ways at those high speeds that make modern hypersonics so dangerous.

Russia’s Kinzhal missile falls into neither of these categories. Instead, Kinzhal is an air-launched ballistic missile that benefits from a great deal of media hype and popular misconceptions about hypersonics. While Kinzhal does indeed achieve hypersonic velocities, it does so in a similar fashion to any number of other ballistic weapons before it, ranging from America’s 1970s-era Minuteman III ICBMs to the AGM-48 Skybolt missile tested by the U.S. and U.K. in the 1950s.

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal saw its first operational use on March 18, 2022, when it was launched at what Russia claims was an underground weapons depot in Deliatyn, Ukraine. The following day, a second Kinzhal was reportedly fired at a Ukrainian fuel depot in Konstantinovka. On April 11, three Kinzhal missiles were reportedly fired at targets in Odessa.

Weapons recovered in Ukraine prove Russia is reliant on Western tech

On August 8, 2022, the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released an in-depth 60-page report outlining their analysis of micro-electronics recovered from a wide variety of Russian weapons and military equipment recovered in Ukraine.

RUSI got its hands on 27 different Russian military systems ranging from cruise missiles to communications systems and found components sourced not just from the United States, but from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the U.K., France, and Germany as well. Based on their findings, it appears the Russian defense industry leveraged a variety of shell corporations and similar covert means to source these components.

In total, RUSI uncovered at least 450 different foreign-made components powering Russia’s most advanced military systems. The majority of those 450 components (318 of them), RUSI was able to confirm, came from “US companies with a longstanding reputation for designing and building sophisticated microelectronics for the US military.”

Even more startling, at least 80 of those 450 identified components are subject to American export controls meant to keep this type of technology from falling into enemy hands.

RUSI, however, isn’t the only independent organization to discover the extent of Russia’s dependency on American and allied weapons technology. In September, another UK-based think-tank, Conflict Armament Research (CAR), released its own report outlining similar findings. CAR’s analysis was borne out of inspections of Russian Ka-52 helicopters, multiple cruise missiles, uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), and communications and navigation equipment — and their findings closely mirrored that of RUSI’s.

CAR identified 650 components sourced from 144 manufacturers outside of Russia. Importantly, CAR’s investigation also proved that Russia uses identical systems across multiple platforms, seemingly to minimize development and production costs.

Assessing the likelihood that the Kinzhal missile carries American hardware

To be clear, although Russia claims to have launched at least six Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missiles at targets in Ukraine, no third-party analyses of the weapon have emerged to date. Due to the high speed of the weapon and kinetic force upon impact, it seems likely that such an analysis would be limited to the few components that survived, and of course, national governments like the United States have a vested interest in getting their hands on these weapons to conduct their own investigations.

However, there are several Russian missile systems recovered in Ukraine that are confirmed to carry American-sourced components, as well as both factual evidence and historical precedent to suggest that many of these identical systems are leveraged across multiple weapons platforms.

Tracing western components through the Iskander missile system

Russia’s 9K720 Iskander missile system consists of a 9P78-1 transporter erector launcher (TEL) vehicle carrying two missiles, as well as a handful of support platforms for reloading and control. The platform can fire various short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

A ballistic missile follows a “ballistic flight path,” which often includes traveling along a predictable arc, whereas a cruise missile tends to follow a straighter, lower-altitude trajectory. Another easy (if not exactly precise) way to think about them is that ballistic missiles fly more like rockets, while cruise missiles fly more like suicide drones.

Among the missiles leveraged by the Iskander system is the 9M720 Iskander-M, which is the short-range ballistic missile that reportedly serves as the basis for Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal.

While there has been no publicly disclosed recovery and analysis of the Kinzhal missile, RUSI analysts did get their hands on at least one of its ground-based siblings, the Iskander-M. To be clear, the Kinzhal missile is reported to have a guidance system intended for air-to-surface operations (rather than the Iskander-M’s surface-to-surface design). It has a slightly different nose-cone, as well as a cap on the back to protect its propulsion system while being carried externally by a small number (reportedly 10) of modified Russian MiG-31Ks or by supersonic Tu-22M3 bombers.

The Kinzhal missile, like the Iskander-M it was reportedly based on, is said to leverage an inertial guidance system alongside GPS/GLONASS satellite navigation and finally an optical or television system for the terminal phase of its flight path (according to Russian media outlets). The exact names or designations of these systems, however, have not been disclosed.

Russia uses the same (or similar) systems across multiple weapons

CAR and RUSI analysts inspected a variety of Russian ballistic and cruise missiles, with both organizations identifying several Western (and specifically American) components throughout.

“We saw that Russia reuses the same electronic components across multiple weapons, including their newest cruise missiles and attack helicopters, and we didn’t expect to see that,” Damien Spleeters, an investigator for Conflict Armament Research, told the New York Times.

“Russian guided weapons are full of non-Russian technology and components, and most of the computer chips we documented were made by Western countries after 2014.”

As one example, CAR and RUSI’s investigations show that the same satellite guidance system (with American components) can be found in no fewer than four different cruise and ballistic missiles, but it gets crazier than that. They also found that the same Baget onboard computer used in the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile was also used in Russia’s Kamov Ka-52 attack helicopter, demonstrating the widespread use of the same or similar systems, all of which carry Western components.

RUSI also identified a similar trend in their investigation.

“In some instances, these systems contained several of the same components. Meanwhile, some of the same components were found across several systems and sub-systems, meaning that the total number of items was significantly higher.”

Silicon Lifeline: Western Electronics at the Heart of Russia’s War Machine,” RUSI, Aug. 2020Because of Russia’s now-confirmed and widespread reliance on American technology in advanced targeting and guidance systems, as well as the understanding that Russia leverages the same or similar systems across multiple weapons platforms, then if we can confirm American hardware exists inside similar or related weapons to the Kh-47M2, then Russia’s Kinzhal missile likely also flies on the back of American technology.

Confirmed American hardware in the Kinzhal missile’s siblings

The BAGET Guidance Processing System

According to RUSI, the Iskander-K cruise missile they investigated uses a Baget-62-04 television guidance processing system in the terminal phase of its flight path to ensure “pinpoint accuracy.” The Baget-62-04 itself carries a variety of Western-sourced components including microprocessors, field-programmable gate arrays, Static Random Access Memory chips, crystal oscillators, connecting sockets, and more.

Among the American companies with components found within the Baget-62-04 were Dallas-based Texas Instruments; San Jose-based Altera; Chandler, AZ-based Microchip Technology; Sunnyvale, CA-based Spansion Inc.; and San Jose-based Cypress Semiconductor.

Russian firm KB Korund-M, which produces these computers, advertises on its webpage that their systems are included in Russia’s Iskander missiles. And in fact, a 2013 report from the company’s Serpukhov Metallist Plant states in no uncertain terms that it produced 222 Baget-62-04 for the Iskander-M missile — the missile that reportedly serves as the basis for the Kinzhal missile.

In a separate analysis of the Iskander-K and Iskander-M missiles published by RUSI, they once again confirmed that the Baget system is leveraged across both the Iskander-series ballistic and cruise missiles, making it seem all the more likely that the same system could be found in the Iskander-M’s air-launched sibling.

“The Baget 62-04 is used onboard both cruise and ballistic missiles fired from the Iskander. The JSC Serpukhov Metallist Plant specifically names it as a product manufactured for the Iskander-M in a 2013 report, and research by RUSI has demonstrated its use on the 9M727 cruise missile.”

The Iskander-M and Iskander-K: A Technical Profile” by Sam Cranny-Evans and Dr Sidharth Kaushal, RUSI, August 8, 2022

The Zarya Radar Processing Computer

RUSI investigators were also able to confirm that the Iskander-K carries the Zarya Radar Processing Computer as part of its navigation and guidance systems. Like the Baget computer, the Zarya also carries several American and western components.

Western-sourced components of the Zarya computer include digital signal processors, flash memory modules, static RAM modules, and ethernet cabling.

American companies with components in the Zarya include Dallas-based Texas Instruments; San Jose-based Cypress Semiconductor; San Jose-based Integrated Device Technology; and Santa Clara-based Advanced Micro Devises. It also includes cabling from Germany’s Harting Technology Group.

RUSI’s secondary analysis also concluded that, as a result of their findings, the Zarya computer is likely also carried on the Kinzhal’s sibling missile, the 9M723 Iskander-M.

“Assuming the practice of using common components across different missiles is consistent, the 9M723 likely also carries the Zarya, a system for processing radar feedback that is found on the 9M727.”

The Iskander-M and Iskander-K: A Technical Profile” by Sam Cranny-Evans and Dr Sidharth Kaushal, RUSI, August 8, 2022

SN-99 (СН-99) GPS/GLONASS Guidance Unit

The SN-99 Guidance unit uses signals from either American GPS satellites or Russia’s slightly less accurate equivalent, GLONASS. This unit was recovered in both Russia’s Iskander-K and their air-launched cruise missile, the Kh-101, by RUSI analysts.

In their own analysis, CAR investigators identified the same SN-99 system in the Kh-101 ALCM, 3M-14 Kalibr, 9M544 cluster munition, and Kh-59 Ovod missile this past September.

The SN-99 system also employs a variety of Western components, including a 32-megabit
flash memory chip made by Sunnyvale, CA-based Spansion, and a 12-bit A/D converter manufactured by Milpitas, CA-based Linear Technology Corporation.

RUSI did not mention the presence of this system in the Iskander-M, though that may have been a result of trying to identify systems in detonated or damaged weapons uncovered in Ukraine. However, this same system has been found in several other weapons.

As the Kinzhal missile is said to leverage GPS/GLONASS guidance and the SN-99 system (complete with American components) has been found in Iskander systems as well as several other Russian missiles, it stands to reason that it — or a similar system based on it — has also found its way into the Kinzhal’s fuselage.

The bottom line: Kinzhal very likely leverages American technology

While it’s impossible to say for sure without actually getting our hands on Russia’s Kinzhal missile, independent analyses of a variety of similar missile platforms (as well as a number of other Russian systems) show Russia’s widespread reliance on Western — and specifically American — electronics. As such, it seems extremely likely that the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is yet another Russian missile packed with components sourced from inside the United States.

“Irrespective of their age and date of construction, one theme remained remarkably consistent: from the standard to the boutique, Russia’s weapons contain large numbers of microelectronic components originally manufactured in North America, Europe and East Asia.”

Silicon Lifeline: Western Electronics at the Heart of Russia’s War Machine,” RUSI, Aug. 2020It’s important to note, however, that this does not mean these companies are intentionally providing the Russian state with hardware meant for missile applications. Russia has a long and well-established history of using espionage and other discreet means to acquire and reverse-engineer Western defense technologies. From the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile to the space shuttle, Russian efforts to maintain parity with the West have long included the theft or outright (if discreet) purchase of American technology.

An indictment unsealed by the U.S. Department of Justice in October may actually reveal some details as to how these purchases continue to take place today. According to official documents, a Russian operative named Yury Orekhov met with an unnamed representative from an undisclosed California-based company at a hotel somewhere in Europe in an attempt to purchase American components to be used in the production of a fighter jet manufactured by Sukhoi — the firm responsible for Russia’s 5th-generation Su-57 among numerous other aircraft.

In a follow-up e-mail from Orekhov’s assistant, they also requested “tactical air navigation interrogators and multi-mode receivers, radiation-hardened, military-grade two-terminal temperature transducers.”

According to U.S. prosecutors, this sale never went through, but more than $250,000 worth of other procurements did before they were able to intervene. Based on the findings of both RUSI and CAR, it seems apparent that these sorts of back-room deals are common.

“CAR’s finding that they all use the same non-Russian components highlights the centrality of foreign technology to Russian advanced defence equipment.”

Component commonalities in advanced Russian weapon systems,” Conflict Armament Research, September, 2022

With these findings in hand, it seems nearly impossible that Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile somehow found its way into service without any American-made hardware tucked inside its fuselage.

But the good news is, even if Russia found a way to get around sanctions and export regulations after their 2014 annexation of Crimea, it seems far less likely that they’ll manage to continue to source components from the United States and elsewhere following the far more severe sanctions levied over the past nine months.

So, while it seems likely that Russia’s faux-hypersonic Kinzhal missile is powered by American tech… it seems unlikely that Russia will be able to continue to source those components for much longer.

Editor’s Note: This article builds upon incredible independent investigations and analyses conducted by the Royal United Services Institute and Conflict Armament Research. We recommend you read their reports in full for more information:

RUSI’s “Silicon Lifeline: Western Electronics at the Heart of Russia’s War Machine” by James Byrne, Gary Somerville, Joe Byrne, Dr Jack Watling , Nick Reynolds, and Jane Baker

CAR’s “Component commonalities in advanced Russian weapon systems

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran specializing in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.