As the United States has continued to rotate B-52 Stratofortress bombers and F-35 Lightning II fighters to Eastern Europe to serve as a deterrent to Russia, the Kremlin has now responded by deploying at least two MiG-31K (NATO reporting name “Foxhound”) fighter jets, and perhaps a Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (NATO reporting name AS-24 “Killjoy) missile to neighboring Belarus.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence, which has been monitoring the movements of Russian military hardware in the region, said in a daily intelligence update that this may be the first time Moscow has placed one of its Killjoy munitions in Belarus. The exact number of nuclear-capable hypersonic aero-ballistic air-to-service missiles isn’t known.
“Russia has occasionally launched these weapons during (the war in Ukraine), but stocks are likely very limited,” the ministry wrote.
The Killjoy Division
The Kh-47M2 first entered service in December 2017 and is one of the six new Russian strategic missiles that were unveiled by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin in March 2018. He had described those missiles as “invincible.”
Based in Belarus, the missile’s 1,200-mile range would provide “Russia little added advantage in terms of striking additional targets in Ukraine,” the MoD added, but noted it was likely to send a “message to the West and to portray Belarus as increasingly complicit in the war.”
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who remains an ardent ally of Putin, has yet to deploy his troops in Ukraine.
However, military analyst Michael Kofman, director of the Russian Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses told The Russian Contingency podcast that the Belarusian forces “don’t add up to a whole lot in terms of offensive combat potential.”
Targeting Ukraine’s Nuclear Plants?
The greater threat could be Russia’s ability to target Ukraine’s energy grid with the missiles during a sortie from Belarus, Kofman added. “The greater vulnerability may be something like the main nuclear power plant further up north that is not too far from the border which actually supplies a lot of electricity to the country.”
The Rivne nuclear power plant is one of four Ukrainian plants in the northern part of the country and the one closest to the border with Belarus.
Even as the Kremlin faces setbacks on the battlefield, it has launched missile strikes against Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure. Upwards of 80 percent of the country was without power following this past weekend’s attacks. The Killjoy could be used to further cripple Ukraine’s power grid.
The Missile and MiG-31K Aircraft
The hypersonic Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile – the airborne-launched version of the 9k720 Iskander (NATO reporting name SS-26 “Stone) – was actually designed to be compatible with the Tu-22M3, but the MiG-31K aircraft can also operate as a delivery vehicle for the hypersonic weapon.
The aircraft is a modified version of the MiG-31BM variant, one of the fastest interceptors designed during the late Soviet era. About ten were modified in 2018, and it reportedly involved the removal of the auxiliary power unit (APU) for air-to-air missiles, transforming the MiG-31K solely into an attack aircraft. Radar has also been removed, while the aircraft can carry additional fuel to increase its range.
A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.
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