Written by Kevin Jennings
On March 19, 2022, Russia claimed to have destroyed a Ukrainian ammunitions depot using hypersonic missiles. Their claims were later verified, making it the first use of hypersonic missiles in combat. Despite being such an important milestone, this action was followed by one simple question: “Why?” Russia had boasted about their Kinzhal hypersonic missiles for years, with President Vladimir Putin describing them as “invincible”. The uses of the Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine have been few and far between, and with good cause; Russia simply doesn’t have that many of them, and there’s nothing necessitating their use in Ukraine.
Today we’ll be examining this not so new technology to see what it may mean for the future of warfare.
What Are Hypersonic Missiles?
If subsonic missiles fly slower than the speed of sound and supersonic missiles fly faster than the speed of sound, naturally hypersonic missiles must fly much faster than the speed of sound. Specifically, they travel at least five times the speed of sound, or roughly 1 mile per second. With a range of 1,000-2,000 miles, that is a lot of potential targets that can be hit with very little warning.
But there’s more than just speed. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) already travel at hypersonic speeds. This is accomplished by firing them high into the atmosphere, and by the time they fall back to the ground they reach incredible speeds. The difference comes from maneuverability. When an ICBM is launched, that’s the end of it. Like a ball thrown in the air, it is fired off with a predictable trajectory, and that’s where it’s will land. Hypersonic missiles have the ability to maneuver, making discerning their exact target a lot more difficult.
Not only are missiles like ICBMs that can travel at hypersonic speeds not exactly new, but there are three types of hypersonic missiles: aeroballistic missiles, glide vehicles, and cruise missiles. The Kinzhal utilizes the oldest technology of the three.
Hypersonic glide vehicles fly high into the atmosphere like a ballistic missile, but then travel or “glide” on a much flatter downward path than the freefall of an ICBM. Glide vehicles will maneuver as they glide, bobbing, weaving, and adjusting speed to make their target unclear.
Hypersonic cruise missiles are boosted to hypersonic speeds by a rocket, then use a special engine called a scramjet to maintain those speeds while retaining maneuverability. Because the scramjets are designed to take in air, they require smaller rockets than glide vehicles and can be launched from more places.
That just leaves hypersonic aeroballistic missiles. These missiles are dropped from an aircraft and accelerated with a rocket to hypersonic speeds, at which point they generally follow a ballistic trajectory. The Kinzhal is reported to maintain some degree of maneuverability, but it would fall short of the control provided by cruise missiles. Though Russia’s Kinzhal missiles are the first hypersonic missiles ever deployed in combat, this aeroballistic missile technology was first developed in the 1970s through 1980s.
Dangers of Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic missiles have the potential to be a major game-changer, at least at first. These missiles fly much lower than ICBMs but much higher than subsonic missiles. If Goldilocks was trying to evade a nation’s current missile defense systems, hypersonic missiles would be just right.
Because currently used missiles all fly at dramatically different altitudes than hypersonic missiles, no country has effective tracking coverage for missiles fired within this range. This is obviously a temporary problem; necessity breeds innovation, and before this there was no real necessity to be able to track that region.
Even if a hypersonic missile were identified, there’s not a lot of defense against it currently. These weapons weren’t in use, so missile defense systems aren’t designed to have appropriate countermeasures; they simply travel too fast for current defense systems to deal with. Once again this should be expected to be a temporary problem, but it is also a major problem.
An advantage of more maneuverable missiles over ballistic missiles is that they allow for diplomacy. Modern cruise missiles have the ability to have their course reprogrammed, to fly in holding patterns, or to simply self destruct. Since the key distinction of hypersonic missiles is their maneuverability, this should be an option as well. However, diplomacy can take time that hypersonic missiles won’t allow.
If Russia were to fire a hypersonic missile from Moscow to Prague, the maximum range of a Kinzhal missile, there be just over 20 minutes from the moment of launch until impact. That is very, very little time to reach a diplomatic solution. Even worse, Russia has claimed that their missiles are capable of carrying both ordinary and nuclear warheads. If true, the launch of a hypersonic missile with an unknown payload flying towards a country like the US could result in a swift and disproportionate nuclear response.
Game-Changer or Hyper?
While the Kinzhal missile is the first hypersonic missile ever used in combat, it is using the 1980s era aeroballistic technology, making it closer to a ballistic missile than the more advanced models. Russia is certainly aware of this, as in 2018 they announced the development of the Avangard, a glide vehicle version of the hypersonic missile.
Even so, it doesn’t change the fact that the Kinzhal is fast as all Hell. The speed of a Kinzhal missile makes it virtually impossible to intercept, thus making it potentially a much more deadly and effective weapon. Is this a game-changer for the war in Ukraine? In a word, no.
Ukraine doesn’t really have a missile defense system, so employing armaments to circumvent one is largely pointless. The warheads that the Kinzhal carry are the same as any other missile, so while they essentially guarantee that the missile will reach its target, the damage isn’t really any different. There are also questions as to the accuracy of the Kinzhal missiles, but with Russia already intentionally targeting civilians with missiles, it becomes really difficult to point to any specific missile and claim that it missed its mark.
The missiles are also being fired over relatively short distances that don’t necessitate the kind of speed hypersonic missiles provide. So why are they being used for the first time in Ukraine? It’s about sending a message.
First, there is the message to the Russian people. State controlled media is undoubtedly painting a different picture to the Russian people than the rest of the world is seeing, but there still isn’t a lot for them to work with in terms of generating positive PR. Being the first country in the world to utilize hypersonic missiles in combat is a massive win for the propaganda machine, and one that it desperately needs.
Then there is the message to the rest of the world. Russia may not have a massive stockpile of hypersonic missiles, but they aren’t afraid to use the ones they have. Even in a conflict where they produce no meaningful advantage, Russia will use whatever weapons they have. There is no such thing as overkill, and they are not afraid to use the tools at their disposal.
There is one other reason to use these in Ukraine, and that is simply to test them to make sure they work. Obviously weapons undergo extensive testing while they’re being developed, but combat is different. In research settings, you can fudge the numbers, massage results, and design tests specifically to achieve the outcome you desire. In combat, either it worked or it didn’t; there isn’t really a lot of room for middle ground. By testing the Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine, they were able to determine that they are effective and can be used in future conflicts where the use of hypersonic missiles will have a more meaningful impact.
Though Russia’s use of hypersonic missiles in Ukraine does not provide them with any particular strategic or military advantage that they could not have gained with other missiles, it’s still an important event. The Kinzhal may use the more antiquated aeroballistic design, but more sophisticated hypersonic missiles are coming.
Russia, the US, China, North Korea, France, the UK, and others are all in development of glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles. As these weapons approach completion, and now that Russia has shown they aren’t afraid to use the missiles that they have, defense becomes more important than ever. Missile defense systems need to be updated and improved to find a way to counteract hypersonic missiles before they become widely used in combat. Because once they’ve been launched, there won’t be enough time to react.