Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile

Exploring the truth behind Russia’s claim about its alleged arms revolution with the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, a study delves into the reality of this weaponry.

The Kinzhal: A Trojan Horse in the Arms Race?

In the wake of March 2022, the echoes of the Kremlin pompously announced the operational scoop of the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile, a projectile launched on a weapons stronghold in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of Ukraine. A first blow with this titan of war, although not as monumental as it was advertised.

The Kinzhal’s roar unleashes a hypersonic rumble, though its lineage traces its roots not to cutting-edge weapons labs of the 21st century but to 1980s air ballistic missile blueprints. Its brilliance is incandescent, but it is not new.

After the initial roar of the announcement, the world was awash with footage purporting to show the Kinzhal assault, heralding the new weapons order. A hoax spread across the airwaves.

The Hypersonic Deception: Revisiting the Truths of Speed

Kinzhal hypersonic missile
Russian MiG-31K fighter armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missile

Hypersonic, a word that evokes the majesty of a peregrine falcon at terminal velocity, refers to those that soar through the skies at speeds that dwarf Mach 5, equivalent to 3,836 miles per hour. This term, with overtones of science fiction, has been appropriated to describe the latest generation of weapons emerging on the global scene. But the Kinzhal, though swift, is not part of this new dawn.

Despite the promises that surround the word hypersonic, its allure lies more in its potential than in the speed itself. True hypersonic weapons seek to harness this rampant speed to reinvent how strategic objectives are achieved. Kinzhal, by contrast, is not keen on this innovation.

The United States has been accused of shadow-crawling Russia in the hypersonic race, a judgment inflated by misunderstandings and manipulations around weapons like the Kinzhal. But the truth is that this projectile is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Hypersonic World

Kinzhal hypersonic missile

Hypersonic, a term that seems forged in the forges of the distant future, has spawned a vision of weapons technology that borders on the realm of science fiction. But the reality is less cinematic and more prosaic: hypersonic flight has been a part of the human arsenal for decades.

The association with advanced weapons and the avant-garde connotation of the term have helped sow a misleading image of these technologies, putting projectiles like the Kinzhal hypersonic missile, a war machine older than its strident hypersonic name suggests, on a pedestal.

Headlines and rhetoric aside, you’re probably already familiar with hypersonic platforms, even if you don’t know them by their real names. Novelty does not always mean invention, and Kinzhal hypersonic missile is living proof of this military truth.

Hypersonic: A true enemy or just an aerodynamic challenge?

Kinzhal hypersonic missile
Russia continues serial production of Kinzhal hypersonic missiles.

The air becomes a formidable rival at hypersonic speed, threatening to tear and scorch standard ship and missile materials from the brutal friction and pressure generated. But this barrier is not inviolable. Like the phoenix, the space shuttle defied Mach 25, or more than 17,500 miles per hour, during its atmospheric reentries, emerging unscathed from the fiery baptism.

The Air Force’s X-37B spacecraft, whose secrets are kept confidential, also flutters at these breakneck speeds. Almost all of the spacecraft and ballistic missiles we have propelled into the stellar ether have been, and continue to be, hypersonic in nature.

This means that America’s nuclear arsenal, replete with ICBMs, Russia’s Kinzhals, and even Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 reusable rockets, all share the halo of hypersonic. In reality, the Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile is more closely related to these ancient contenders than it is to the emerging hypersonic weapons that Russia, China and the United States are vying to field.

The Kinzhal’s Heritage: A Look at Its Lineage

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, or Dagger in Slavic linguistics, is an airborne ballistic missile that inherits its design from a 1980s weapon. 2017 it was unveiled as part of Russian operational service, a disclosure made in 2018. No, not a new creation, but a reinvention of the 9K720 Iskander, a ground-launched short-range ballistic missile equipped with a reformed guidance system for airborne operations.

The birth of the Iskander dates from 1988, but its development suffered continuous delays caused by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, postponing its first full test flight until 1998. Between 1998 and 2005, 13 test launches were made from the proving ground of Kasputin Yar in Russia, and the weapon finally entered operational service in 2006.

Both the Kinzhal and the Iskander achieve hypersonic speeds through a near-ballistic flight path that never leaves the atmosphere, maneuvering along their path to evade interceptions.

However, while the Iskander and Kinzhal are competent ballistic weapons, they are far from the state-of-the-art weapons cited in hypersonic missile talk. In fact, the Kinzhal is more like a 2006 NASA initiative that sought to reuse retired AIM-54 Phoenix missiles for hypersonic flight testing.

The Kinzhal and the Phoenix: An Unexpected Duo

The Kinzhal, with its birthplace in the 1980s, is an unlikely relative of NASA’s 2006 initiative to harness disused Phoenix missiles to venture into hypersonic territory. However, both the design and the philosophy behind these war machines are strikingly similar.

Both are Cold War artifacts repurposed for a new purpose, spanning decades of aeronautical and space history. They are reflections of the innovation required in the arms race and demonstrate how human ingenuity can challenge the conception of what is modern and advanced.

The Kinzhal, though it may seem like a jewel of hypersonic technology, is actually a relic of the past adapted for the present. However, this adaptation and its impressive speed should not detract from its ability to fulfill its purpose: the rapid and efficient delivery of ammunition, a capability that remains critical in modern warfare.

Phoenix Ascendant: NASA’s Hypersonic Beast

The AIM-54 Phoenix, a diminutive workhorse, beat at its heart with a solid-propulsion rocket motor, burning at a breakneck speed of Mach 4.3 in its air-to-air mode. His feat, however, was not limited to the heavens. By adjusting its arc of flight and releasing it with a powerful thrust, NASA anticipated that the Phoenix could overcome the Mach 5 hypersonic barrier with boldness and precision.

But the goal was not to arm the next generation of warbirds. It was a nobler purpose: to unlock the mysteries of hypersonic flight and push the boundaries of aviation science.

The Phoenix, despite its size, was a sight to behold, a bright feather in the cap of aerospace research.

Kinzhal: The Ballistic Emissary of the East

In contrast, the Russian Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, a larger beast, houses a larger caliber solid-fuel rocket engine in its belly. Like the Phoenix, the Kinzhal operates on the same premise, banking on rocket propulsion and a suppressed ballistic trajectory.

Over time, the Kinzhal has become an emblem of Russian military might, a constant reminder of its influence in the skies and beyond.

The Kinzhal, however, is no exception. There have been other attempts to launch ballistic missiles from the air, such as the successful launch of the USAF Minuteman I in 1974 from a C-5.

The Way of the Hypersonic Weapon: Between Heaven and Hell

Despite technological feats, the shadow of nuclear escalation often hangs over these projects. It is almost impossible to distinguish between a ballistic missile with nuclear charges and one with conventional weapons. It is a delicate dance that can potentially ignite Armageddon’s fires.

Consequently, these aerial ballistic missile launches have been kept to an absolute minimum, safeguarding against the apocalyptic spiral of nuclear war. This is the grim reality behind the feats of speed and power of hypersonic missiles.

Categorizing the New Generation of Hypersonic Weapons

The current discussion of hypersonic weapons generally revolves around hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles. China, Russia and the United States are at the forefront of its development and deployment.

HGVs are not much different from long-range ballistic missile warheads, at least early in their flight path. They are transported into the atmosphere via high-speed booster rockets, often not as high as ICBMs.

The missile then deploys one or more HGVs that use momentum and their control surfaces to navigate their high-speed descent toward their targets.

The Avangard: Hypersonic Glide Vehicle and the Modern Arsenal

Kinzhal hypersonic missile
Russian ICBM (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

As a sculpture of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, the Russian arsenal deploys its mighty Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, the Avangard, awaiting its debut on the nuclear chessboard, the ICBM RS-28 Sarmat. Not far away, the Chinese queen moves her pieces, and her DF-ZF anti-ship weapon joins the hypersonic game. In turn, the United States is forging its Conventional Prompt Strike and the AGM-183 Airborne Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) in its crucible of war, still in its infancy, in the weapons development incubator.

Hypersonic cruise missiles appear to be the new gladiators in this global arena, powered by the modern lion of propulsion, the scramjet, or supersonic combustion ramjet. Inheritor of ancient ramjet technology, this battle steed has the feat of allowing combustion at supersonic speeds, a virtue that only awakens at full gallop. To unleash their true potential, hypersonic missiles require the initial thrust of a rocket or high-speed aircraft.

Hypersonic cruise missiles, once launched, dance in the air like their traditional counterparts, tracing horizontal paths and maneuvering with the agility of a hawk in mid-flight. However, in this symphony of destruction, the complexity and cost of its construction strike a discordant note. To this day, no forge master has accomplished the feat of successfully launching a scramjet-powered weapon.

Kinzhal, the Russian Hyper spectrum and the Arms Market

The Kremlin flies its “hypersonic” flag with the Kinzhal, a clever marketing gimmick in the lethal bazaar of war. A hypersonic sign would seem to attract more eyes and open more wallets.

In its usual round, the Russian treasury tends to stop at the $60 billion station, a sum parallel to that of nations like the United Kingdom. However, with a larger military force, the Russian bear must manage to fuel its war machine with a more modest budget.

This monetary tightening has dragged Russia into a financial chessboard, where every move, every decision in the allocation of funds, becomes a strategic move.

The Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile: An Ace Up Your Sleeve or Mere Illusion?

The relevant question is: Is the Kinzhal really a jewel in the Kremlin’s crown, or just a device to dazzle the world?

The Russian strategy is a game of chess, where each move is measured, and each piece has a purpose. Will the Kinzhal be a tower of strength or just a pawn in Russian strategy?

Perhaps this trick of the Russian magician is a masterful move, fooling the audience with his cunning. But for the astute observer, the real question is to discern the truth behind the trick and unmask the truth behind the illusion.

The Missing Link of the Russian Defense: From Reality to Illusion

Russia, the Slavic colossus, has decided to pool its resources into forging a defensive propaganda army, a war marketing machine that ferociously sells weapons and technology abroad. The aging Russian economy, already in a critical state due to the infection of international sanctions, puts its ability to reform its military alliance on the line.

Nonetheless, it defiantly persists, financing the manufacture of new weapons and systems, bold bets that seek to capture the attention of the world while their armor ages, prey to obsolescence.

The Russian war machine is incapable of oiling the mass production of air beasts like the Su-57 stealth fighter or steel colossi like the T-14 Armata tank unless foreign wallets patronize the cause. In this mission of seduction, the image projected is crucial: a Russia that forges weapons comparable, even superior, to those of titans like the United States and China.

The Hypersonic Deception: Playing with the Perception of Power

Thus, Russia, skilled in the art of deception, manipulates popular conceptions, such as the term “hypersonic,” projecting a façade of 21st-century military force at a bargain price. In short, it aims to consolidate the funding needed to actually deploy cutting-edge technology, selling the Kinzhal and other outdated or defective weapons as a military vanguard.

It is true that the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal could be labeled a hypersonic missile, but we could just as truthfully hang that label on Hitler’s V-2 rocket. Today’s hypersonic weapons, like the Chinese DF-ZF or the US Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) (still in development), are beasts of a different breed altogether.

The Kinzhal: A Trojan Horse in the Modern War Landscape

Regardless of its name, the Kinzhal plays a cunning role in the game of war chess. It appears to be a pawn in the battle of speed, but in reality, it is a Trojan horse. This carefully orchestrated illusion serves as a hypersonic ruse in the arsenal of Russian perception.

The world is captivated by its hypersonic flight, but beneath that facade lies a more sinister and Machiavellian reality: the construction of a narrative that highlights supposed Russian might, an attempt to deceive the world, trading reality for illusions of superiority.

Kinzhal’s True Goal: It’s Not Speed, It’s Perception

Thus, the true goal of the Kinzhal is not to achieve hypersonic speeds or to lead the high-velocity weapons game. Instead, an instrument of manipulation designed to alter the global perception of Russian military might.

Russia seeks to create an image of dominance and superiority, despite the economic and technological obstacles it faces. The tactic is clever and cunning, but beneath it, the true face of the Russian arsenal awaits to be revealed.

Ultimately, the Kinzhal is an element in a larger game of deception and perception. A propaganda tool cleverly disguised as a cutting-edge weapon in a race to secure funding and influence on the global war landscape.