Russia upgrades Kinzhal missiles to defeat anti-aircraft systems

The Kinzhal and Iskander-M, selected for their similar characteristics, share a unique launch dynamic.

Technological advances promise to increase the lethality of the Iskander ballistic missile and the Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile, expanding their range of action, providing them with more devastating warheads, improving their ability to avoid anti-aircraft systems through more agile maneuvers and perfecting communications to coordinate multiple attacks. These improvements aim to consolidate further the predominant role of these weapons in Russian military power.

In the context of Russia’s strategic arsenal, both the Iskander and the Kinzhal have been critical components, as have other systems such as the Kh-101 aerial cruise missile, the Kalibr maritime cruise missile, and the Geran-2 suicide drone. These systems have been key pieces in Russian military operations, particularly in long-range attacks against Ukraine, covering both military and civilian targets.

The Russian Ministry of Defense, through its promotional material, has highlighted the precision of its radar systems in identifying strategic targets within Ukraine, including decision centers, weapons warehouses in urban areas and critical transportation nodes for the supply of war material. In addition, electrical distribution systems are among the priority objectives, signaling a strategy of infrastructural destabilization.

The attack capability of Russian missiles focuses on neutralizing a variety of surface-to-air missile systems, both of Soviet and Western origin, highlighting advanced systems such as the IRIS-T, the Patriot and the NASAMS. This versatility reflects a meticulous focus on overcoming adversary defensive barriers, marking a critical point in contemporary Russian military doctrine.

Evolution in progress: Improvement of the Iskander and Kinzhal missiles

During an inspection at the Kolomna Mechanical Engineering Design Bureau, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu highlighted the need to hone the warfighting capabilities of the Iskander and Kinzhal missile systems, drawing inspiration from their operational performance in the Military District North.

Defense specialist Dmitry Kornev revealed the focal areas of research by the Russian military establishment aimed at optimizing the aerodynamics of missiles, reducing their visibility to anti-aircraft systems and diversifying launch platforms.

Specifically, the current Kinzhal variants are deployed from MiG-31 “K” and “I” interceptors. However, the recent integration of this missile into the Su-34 fighter-bomber fleet suggests a search for operational versatility, although with certain concessions in performance due to speed differences between the aircraft. This adaptability highlights Russia’s pragmatic approach to the interoperability of its weapons systems.

The Kinzhal and the Iskander-M, selected for their similar characteristics, share a unique launch dynamic. The Kinzhal, essentially an Iskander-M modified for air operations, maintains a consistent flight path after separation from the initial booster. Both missiles evade conventional ballistic classification, complicating their detection and interception by anti-aircraft radars.

The Iskander, with its semi-ballistic trajectory and speed exceeding Mach 4, represents a significant challenge for defense systems, while the Kinzhal, thanks to its superior speed and maneuverability, exponentially increases the difficulty of interception.

Despite Ukrainian claims of interception of the Kinzhal, the lack of corroborated evidence suggests that its neutralization remains a pending task, even with the support of Western analysis based on satellite intelligence.

Kornev points out that the experience acquired by Russia in the electronic confrontation scenario and the evaluation of the performance of Western anti-aircraft missile (SAM) systems will be catalysts for future technological advances, anticipating Western improvements in air defense software and tracking radars.

Iskander-M and 9M728: keys to the precision attack strategy

Russia upgrades Kinzhal missiles to defeat anti-aircraft systems

Since its introduction in 2006, the Iskander-M missile has been a mainstay in Russia’s offensive strategy, offering an operational range of between 150 and 500 km. A notable upgrade between 2010 and 2011 ensured that by 2020, all missile brigades would be fully equipped with this advanced version.

The duality in its arsenal, including the 9M723 ballistic missile and the 9M728 cruise missile, highlights the tactical flexibility of the Iskander-M system, allowing coordinated attacks with Gerans and Kh-101 missiles against urban targets in Ukraine, probably favoring the use of the 9M728 for such operations.

Dmitry Kornev’s analysis highlights how Ukrainian effectiveness in neutralizing Russian air offensives is depleting reserves of anti-aircraft missiles (SAM) of Western origin, raising the need for Russia to innovate in-flight capabilities, weaponry and tactics to evade anti-missile defenses.

In this context, the withdrawal of Russia and the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty opens up new possibilities for the Iskander, particularly with regard to extending its operational range.

The possibility of equipping the 9M723 missile with an advanced propellant, taking advantage of the latest solid fuel technologies, could significantly expand its range up to 1,000 km, maintaining the warhead’s weight at the minimum threshold of 500 kg.

Such a development would not only expand the theater of potential operations for Russia, but would also recalibrate strategic considerations in the region, anticipating a possible increase in Russian offensive capabilities without compromising the destructive power of its warheads. Kornev hints that efforts to make these improvements could already be in progress, ushering in a new era in long-range missile warfare.

The Kinzhal: a deep and versatile attack vector

Russia upgrades Kinzhal missiles to defeat anti-aircraft systems
Russian MiG-31K fighter armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missile

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile is notable for its ability to carry a variety of warheads, including high-explosive penetrators capable of destroying fortified targets and reaching underground facilities. This capability was effectively demonstrated on March 18, 2022 against “Object-711” in Ivano-Frankivsk, highlighting the Kinzhal’s ability to compromise underground depots built during the Cold War.

With an operational range of up to 2,000 km, the Kinzhal can use high-explosive fragmentation warheads weighing close to 482 kg, ideal for annihilating equipment and infrastructure over wide areas. Additionally, its configuration allows the use of cluster bomb warheads, which deliver multiple submunitions onto extended targets, maximizing the impact area.

The potential inclusion of a heavier and more powerful warhead, approximately 800 kg, suggests a focus on increasing the Kinzhal’s destructive capacity without sacrificing its range. This improvement, together with the possibility of equipping the missile with a new propellant to maintain the launch distance of the Iskander-M but with greater explosive force, represents a significant advance in Russia’s offensive capability.

Expanding launch platforms to include strategic bombers such as the Tu-22M3M and Tu-160M, known for their extended range, allows Russia to project a multi-directional hypersonic threat, increasing the ability to conduct simultaneous attacks and complicating enemy defensive responses. This adaptability underlines the integration of the Kinzhal into Russia’s long-range warfare doctrine, ensuring its relevance across an expanded operational spectrum.

The Kinzhal, developed on the technological basis of the Iskander-M, not only stands out for its hypersonic speed (Mach 10), which allows it to reach any target in Europe in minutes but also for its ability to deploy decoys against air defense systems.

This deception capability, similar to that used by the Kh-101 missile, which flies at low altitude to evade radars, demonstrates Russia’s sophistication and strategic approach towards overcoming adversary defenses, consolidating the Kinzhal as a central pillar in the Russian offensive arsenal.

Future of war: Iskander and Kinzhal missile swarms

Dmitry Kornev proposes a futuristic vision where interoperability between Iskander and Kinzhal missiles is raised to a new level, thanks to software updates that would allow autonomous communication between these weapons.

This conceptual advancement opens the door to coordinated strike operations, where Iskanders and Kinzhals could join together to address highly complex targets using swarm tactics, surpassing conventional defensive capabilities.

Implementing such technology would represent a qualitative leap in warfare doctrine, enabling precision strikes with unprecedented synchronization and efficiency. The ability to initiate launch sequences more agilely and reduce the operational burden on crews are just some of the potential benefits of this innovative approach.

Looking to the future, Kornev suggests that, although today it may seem like a remote possibility, the development of these integrated missile communication capabilities could be closer than anticipated, marking a milestone in the evolution of Russian military strategy.