Ukraine's downing of a Russian Kh-47 Kinzhal missile with an American-made Patriot battery on Thursday indicates that the weapon may be more hype than hypersonic.
The Kinzhal, or "Dagger," drew headlines when it was first used against a Ukrainian target in March 2022 -- ostensibly the first hypersonic weapon to be used in combat.
The air launched missile was introduced as a hypersonic weapon by President Vladimir Putin in 2018. Putin, and every official Russian statement on the weapons since, described the Kinzhal as being able to travel at such high speed and maneuverability that it was impossible for western air defenses to intercept.
This was proven false if the Ukrainian military is to be believed.
Ukraine's successful defense
"Ukraine's air defenders shot down Kinzhal, a hypersonic aeroballistic Russian missile, for the first time since the attacks began," the Ukrainian Air Force said on Saturday. "This was done by operators of Patriot air defense system."
The discrepancy between Russia's claims about the weapon and its performance may lay in propagandistic branding for an air-launched ballistic missile.
According to a January US Congressional Budget report on US Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives, hypersonic speed is travel above Mach 5. Such speeds are not uncommon, and are regularly achieved by ballistic missiles during parts of their journey. Speed alone is not enough for the classification as a hypersonic weapon.
The US report explains that hypersonic weapons are projectiles and vehicles that are able to travel and maneuver within the atmosphere at Mach 5 for an extended period. The high speed maneuvers in theory makes them difficult for air defenses to track and intercept.
A 2020 NATO report on hypersonic weapons said that the Kinzhal was "not generally characterized as a hypersonic weapon" but was included in discussion due to its ability to maneuver along its ballistic path. Ballistic missiles are given an initial boost to travel in an arcing motion, often at high altitudes. The Kinzhal operates at a quasi-ballistic path, with a shorter arc.
While Putin and other Russian officials indicated that the Kinzhal could reach speeds of Mach 10, the NATO report indicated that it could be far slower than that. The Kinzhal is unlikely to be moving at hypersonic speeds through its entire ballistic path, and through all its maneuvers.
The Kinzhal may be a formidable weapon, but it is far from the unstoppable challenge as Russia has claimed. It should probably not be characterized further as a hypersonic weapon.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said on Sunday the Kinzhal incident showed belief in Russian propaganda's portrayal of Kremlin weaponry as superior and without analogues is a mistake.
As states like Iran claim to develop hypersonic missiles that can penetrate Israeli defenses, the hype should also be separated from the hypersonic.