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It was supposed to be the missile that no one could stop. The hypersonic “dagger” that Vladimir Putin could slip into Ukraine – and Nato’s – chest, like an assassin wielding a blade so fast that the lethal blow is just a blur. Dead before you know it.
But then this week Ukraine claimed to have destroyed half a dozen KH-47M2 Kinzhal “Dagger” missiles using anti-missile systems widely assumed to be Patriot batteries loaned to the country by America. Suddenly the assassin’s blade was apparently being parried, deflected and destroyed.
Russia, naturally, disputes the claim. But earlier this month, on May 6, Ukraine said it had managed to shoot down a single Kinzhal missile, in a first which has since been verified. So if a quiver-full of Kinzhals has now indeed been destroyed, has the mystique of the unstoppable missile that was going to change the face of warfare been shot down with it? Perhaps.
The interception of the Kinzhal represents the solution to a conundrum that, in essence, military commands have been wrestling with for half a century, ever since nuclear warheads were placed aboard inter-continental and medium-range ballistic missiles that arced high into the sky, to the upper reaches of our atmosphere or even beyond it, until falling back down upon their targets.
As they did so they too reached hypersonic speeds, anything above Mach 5, or 3,800mph. Suddenly the Warsaw Pact was able to irradiate London in four minutes. “The time to respond was significantly decreased,” says Justin Bronk, an air-warfare specialist at the Royal United Service Institute.
What’s different about the Kinzhal, and others in today’s new breed of hypersonic missiles, is that they are not just blindingly fast but – unlike traditional ballistic missiles – they are manoeuvrable too. “That makes them particularly challenging to defend against,” says Bronk.
Raw speed is just one element of the problem. Because the missile can arrive from any number of different angles, life is made immeasurably harder even for sophisticated defence systems, which often tend to “face” in the direction of an expected attack. Recent upgrades to Patriot systems, specifically designed to grant it 360-degree capability, may be behind Ukraine’s recent success in shooting down the Kinzhal.
Still, the combination of speed and manoeuvrability make even predicting a hypersonic missile’s target hard, let alone knocking it out of the sky.
According to James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, there are three varieties of hypersonic missile. The first – guided ballistic missiles – are the most basic, essentially adding fins to traditional missiles allowing an element of direction as they plummet down to earth.
Then there are so-called “boost glide” vehicles which soar high into the sky, only to plummet down soon after launch, using the hypersonic speed acquired on descent to glide, often over huge distances, at relatively low altitude towards their target.
Then there are cruise missiles equipped with a revolutionary “scramjet” engine, capable of propelling its warhead far faster than traditional solid-fuel rockets. The advantage of this third category is that it is potentially able to keep extremely rapid hypersonic missiles at relatively low altitude for the whole journey, which reduces the distance at which radar can pick them up – and hence the time left to react.
“You are not going to be able to detect them [with radar] over long distances because of the curvature of earth,” says Bronk. “If you had a cruise missile travelling at Mach 5 and 150ft cresting the horizon towards a naval ship – you would be looking at just 7-8 seconds on board that ship from detection to impact. Your whole system has to react so quickly.”
That, however, is not what Russia has been deploying against Ukraine. Instead, the Kinzhal is hoisted up to huge altitude by the enormous power of the Mig-31 interceptor aircraft, which can fly to great altitude, around 67,000ft at up to 2.8 times the speed of sound.
According to Dave Majumdar, a Pentagon analyst until 2021, “the MiG-31 can quickly boost the new weapon into launch position and impart significant launch energy.” The result, says Bronk, is that the missile achieves “much greater range, or velocity. You can choose which.”
To compound the difficulty for Ukrainian air defence, Russia combines the arrival of hypersonic Kinzhals with other, conventional missiles, or indeed with Iranian-made drones. It is a combination deliberately designed to overwhelm Patriot systems, “to saturate response” in the language of air war.
The Kinzhals themselves have their own complexities, equipped as they are with six “decoys” that fire away from the warhead, in a deliberate effort to confound what’s known as Integrated Air and Missile Defense systems (IAMD) that lie at the heart of the Nato shield. Such systems comprise several layers of anti-missile defence, from the expensive and sophisticated, like Patriots, to the cheap and cheerful, like shoulder-fired “Manpads”.
“No system can provide 100pc protection,” says Bronk. “But America has always favoured protecting one or two targets really well with layered defence. Unfortunately, it’s just too expensive to protect everything that way.”
Russia, which has spent huge sums on improving its own air defence systems, has an excellent understanding of IAMD, which could explain, analysts suggest, why it seemed to be excited about the penetrative capabilities of the Kinzhal.
The problem is that the Patriot has been updated too, with the latest PAC-3 model, Bronk says, “specifically aimed at improving the performance against very difficult ballistic missiles with decoys.” In the hypersonic arms race, “there’s this constant back and forth” with attack and defence claiming advantages in turn.
The Patriot upgrade does not render the Kinzhal a busted flush, however. It remains the first time such a weapon has been fielded and fired in battle. Yet it is also true that five years ago, when video emerged of the Kinzhal test, then US defence secretary James Mattis insisted that “it doesn't change anything.”
That may be true. But hypersonics are only just getting started. And the Kinzhal is not the only hypersonic missile Russia claims to have in its armoury. It also claims that the Zircon, a missile using cutting-edge scramjet propulsion that other nations are scrambling to master, is now operational. Meanwhile, China has the DF-17, a boost-glide missile capable of travelling 10 times the speed of sound.
And unlike the Kinzhal, it is this breed of hypersonics that sends chills down the spines of military strategists today. In particular, they are potent anti-ship weapons, threatening the aircraft carriers that have allowed America to project its power around the globe in unmatched fashion over recent decades.
“Such hypersonics are certainly a major concern for the US Navy,” says Bronk. There are two likely consequences. First, potential targets will have to sit further from the battlefield, to maximise response time. As this decade – and hypersonic technology – progresses, however, it may become impossible to destroy the missile itself. Instead, defence systems will target communications and targeting systems – the “kill webs” as they are known – guiding the warhead to its target.
Some such systems, however, are likely to be based not on the ground, but in orbit. In the “back and forth” of defence and attack, there will be ways to protect against the most sophisticated hypersonic missiles.
The problem is that doing so is likely to extend the battlefield into space.