What to know about the hypersonic missiles fired by Russia at Ukraine

By Brad Lendon, CNN

Russia used hypersonic missiles during its invasion of Ukraine, US President Joe Biden confirmed on Monday.

“And if you notice, (Russia just) launched the hypersonic missile, because that’s the only thing they can go through with absolute certainty,” Biden said. “It’s a heavy weapon… it’s nearly unstoppable. There’s a reason they use it.

But British intelligence and even Biden’s own defense secretary have played down Russia’s use of its air-launched Kinzhal missiles.

“I wouldn’t see it as a game changer,” Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

And Britain’s Ministry of Defense said the Kinzhal missile was really just an air-launched version of the Iskander short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), which Russia used repeatedly during its invasion of Russia. ‘Ukraine.

Why the fear and hype around hypersonic missiles?

First, it is important to understand the term.

Essentially all missiles are hypersonic, meaning they travel at least five times the speed of sound. Almost any warhead launched from a rocket miles into the atmosphere will achieve this speed while heading towards its target. It’s not a new technology.

What military powers — including Russia, China, the United States and North Korea — are currently working on is a hypersonic gliding vehicle (HGV). A heavyweight is a highly maneuverable payload that can theoretically fly at hypersonic speed while adjusting its trajectory and altitude to fly under radar detection and around missile defenses.

A heavyweight is the weapon that is almost unstoppable. And Russia is said to have a heavyweight in its arsenal, the Avangard system, which Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018 called “virtually invulnerable” to Western air defenses.

But the Kinzhal, as a variant of the Iskander SRBM, is not a heavyweight. Although it has limited maneuverability like the Iskander, its main advantage is that it can be launched from MiG-31 fighter jets, giving it longer range and the ability to attack in multiple directions, according to a report last year from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The MiG-31K can strike in unpredictable directions and could evade intercept attempts entirely. The flying carrier vehicle could also be more resilient than the road-mobile Iskander system,” the report said.

The same report also noted that the ground-launched Iskander proved vulnerable to missile defense systems during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, in which Azeri forces intercepted an Armenian Iskander.

“This suggests that claims about Kinzhal’s invulnerability to missile defense systems may also be somewhat overstated,” the report said.

Does Ukraine have missile defences?

The United States and its NATO allies are already sending several surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine to help it defend itself.

According to a senior US official, these additional systems include the Soviet-era SA-8, SA-10, SA-12 and SA-14 mobile air defense systems.

And NATO member Slovakia has agreed to send even better S-300 missile defense batteries to Ukraine once it secures suitable replacements from NATO partners, sources said. at CNN.

Why did Putin use the Kinzhal missile?

Use in Ukraine marks the combat debut of the Russian Kinzhal system.

“On March 18, the Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aeroballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse of missiles and aviation ammunition of Ukrainian troops in the village of Delyatin, Ivano-Frankivsk region” , said the Russian Ministry of Defense.

CNN has not been able to independently verify this claim.

US officials later confirmed to CNN that Russia launched hypersonic missiles against Ukraine and was able to track the launches in real time.

The launches were likely intended to test the weapons and send a message to the West about Russian capabilities, multiple sources told CNN.

And with the war on the ground in Ukraine becoming a stalemate, Russia may be looking for victories to brag about.

The UK Ministry of Defense said Moscow likely deployed the Kinzhal to “damage the lack of progress in Russia’s ground campaign”.

Austin, the US Secretary of Defense, used similar language in his CBS interview, saying Putin is “trying to restore some momentum” to his invasion of Ukraine.

Austin asked if the Russian military lacked precision-guided munitions, or if Putin lacked confidence in “his troops’ ability to restore momentum.”

“You kind of wonder why he would do that,” he said.

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