Putin’s new missile is not breaking the laws of physics—just stretching the truth.
On Thursday, March 9, Russia fired a barrage of more than 80 missiles at Ukraine. The defenders brought down many of the incoming weapons with surface-to-air missiles, but six Kinzhal missiles streaked past at high speeds, seemingly impossible to intercept. It was the largest number of the new missiles ever fired at once.
Ukrainian officials would not comment on what the Kinzhals hit or how much damage they did, though one previous Kinzhal strike targeted a fuel depot. U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters described using the missile as an attempt “to put fear into the hearts” of Ukrainians, rather than hitting military targets.
So did the strike really signal Russia’s superiority in hypersonic missile technology? And is the Kinzhal truly the unstoppable Mach 10 superweapon that Kremlin supporters claim?
A peek behind the curtain shows that things are not quite what they seem.
Putin Plays the ‘Hypersonic’ Card
In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech announcing a slew of new weapons to defeat American anti-missile technology. That included three hypersonic weapons, one of which was a new missile called “Kinzhal” or “Dagger,” launched from a jet fighter to attack ground targets and ships.
“The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, ten times faster than the speed of sound, can also maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory,” Putin said. “Which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads to a range of over 2,000 kilometers. [1200 miles].”
“Kinzhal is nothing more than an air-launched ballistic missile.”
But Western analysts already knew about this missile, which has the NATO reporting name “Killjoy.” They were not impressed with Putin’s attempt at rebranding.
“Kinzhal is nothing more than an air-launched ballistic missile,” Jeffrey Lewis, Ph.D., of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, tells Popular Mechanics. “It’s only hypersonic in the sense that pretty much all ballistic missiles are hypersonic.”
Sidharth Kaushal, Ph.D., of the U.K.-based defense think tank RUSI is similarly doubtful about the “hypersonic” label. “It doesn’t meet the maneuverability criteria for being a true hypersonic weapon,” he tells Popular Mechanics.
Their doubts are rooted in the Kinzhal’s lineage. It is an air-launched version of a ground-launched Iskander ballistic missile, with only fairly minor modifications for the new launch method. It was first seen in 2010 proposals for a weapon to be carried by a MiG-31 “Foxhound” fighter.
The Iskander system has been in service since 2006, transported and launched from a giant 8x8 high-mobility military truck. Putting it on an aircraft allows the missile to be rapidly deployed to a theater of operations.
Iskander refers to the missile plus its launch system. The missile itself is technically 9M723, a short-range ballistic missile, carrying 1,000 pounds of high explosive or a small nuclear warhead. The rocket flies on a “quasi-ballistic” trajectory, meaning that rather than traveling on a smooth curve like a cannonball, it makes random minor course changes so its path cannot be predicted. This makes it difficult to intercept, but this is not the same as being able to maneuver.
“Steering at hypersonic speed is a cool trick,” says Lewis, who is also the founding publisher of ArmsControlWonk.com, the first blog on arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation. “It is only possible with improvements in guidance and materials science.”
The quasi-ballistic approach is hardly unique; others, such as the U.S. Army’s ATACMS missile, do the same thing.
The air-launched Iskander variant entered service with Russian forces in 2017, with a dedicated squadron of MiG-31s re-tasked as missile carriers. Originally developed as an interceptor, the MiG-31 is one of the fastest combat aircraft in the world with a top speed of over Mach 2.8 (compared to Mach 2.5 for the USAF’s F-22 Raptor), and an ability to reach over 80,000 feet. This makes it ideal for launching missiles at high speed and altitude. However, the size of the Kinzhal means that each MiG-31 can only carry one.
Little attention had been paid to the Kinzhal until Putin’s speech and his attempt to paint it as a radical step forward.
Hypersonic, or Just Hype?
As Lewis notes, anything which travels at more than Mach 5 is hypersonic in a narrow dictionary sense. This would include the complete range of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as well as the original Iskander. In aerospace circles, though, the term “hypersonic” is used more specifically for vehicles which can maneuver freely at over Mach 5 inside Earth’s atmosphere—not for those that can only make minor course corrections.
There are two classes of hypersonic vehicles. Hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) are essentially new warheads for ICBMs. Re-entering the atmosphere at high speed, they can veer away from their original aim point, making it impossible to tell where they are headed. Russia is developing an HGV known as Avangard for its RS-28 “Satan” ICBM.
international military technical forum army 2022 in moscow
Hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) have an air-breathing propulsion system, typically a form of ramjet, giving them very high-speed powered flight. This is more challenging than gliding—maintaining engine ignition in hypersonic flight has been compared to keeping a match lit in a tornado—and is still some years away.
“To meet the criteria to be classed as an HGV or HCM, a missile has to be highly maneuverable,” Kaushal explains. “Everything I’ve seen indicates Kinzhal is just an air-launched Iskander, a quasi-ballistic missile.”
A 2020 NATO report notes that the missile is often included in discussions of hypersonics, but concludes “Kinzhal is not generally characterized as a hypersonic weapon.”
Faster Than a Speeding Bullet
Putin’s claim of Mach 10 for the Kinzhal sounds impressive. It translates to more than two miles per second—four times the speed of a typical .308 high-velocity rifle round. But this seems unlikely.
The Iskander that Kinzhal is based on is believed to reach Mach 6–7, or possibly less. The U.S. database on Russian missiles quotes the Iskander’s burnout speed—that is, the speed at the moment the rocket stops providing thrust—as Mach 5.9. The Kinzhal appears to have the same engine as the Iskander, so the performance will be similar.
“When you’ve got the same rocket motor, it shouldn’t be physically possible to go that much faster,” Lewis says.
an lgm 30 minuteman iii missile soars in the air after a test launch
The LGM-30 Minuteman is a U.S. land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), in service with the Air Force Global Strike Command. As of 2021, the LGM-30G Minuteman III version is the only land-based ICBM in service in the United States, and represents the land leg of the U.S. nuclear triad.
Meanwhile, Kaushal believes that a launch from a high-speed aircraft at altitude should help . . . a little. “My sense is that it has more speed than the ground-launched version, and their speed claims are not entirely fantastical,” Kaushal says. “But they may be on the high side.”
Claims elsewhere on the internet of speeds of Mach 12 or more for Kinzhal can be discounted. And even Mach 10 is, at the moment, Putin’s unsupported assertion.
U.S. intelligence agencies know exactly how fast Kinzhal travels, having tracked the missiles fired at Ukraine in real time. So far, they have not publicly shared that information.
In fact, Kinzhal is not that fast as far as missiles go. Broadly speaking, the bigger a missile, the greater speed and range it has; for example, the USAF’s 36-ton Minuteman III ICBM has a top speed of over Mach 23.
None of this should detract from the fact that Kinzhal is still dangerous.
“It may not be able to turn on a dime, but it’s still very difficult to intercept,” Lewis says. “But then the same is true of any ballistic missile.”
He notes that while Ukrainian forces have had considerable success with shooting down Russian drones and cruise missiles, they have had trouble with other ballistic missiles, including the Iskander. Even the introduction of Patriot missiles may not change this, and half a ton of explosive arriving at high speed can do some real damage.
The Kinzhal is a precision weapon, able to strike key targets, such as command centers, and Kaushal notes that its high speed means it can penetrate even deeply buried bunkers. However, this requires good intelligence about target locations.
Stretching the Truth: Putin vs. Newton
Perhaps the most unlikely claim made for the Kinzhal is the range of 1200 miles compared to just 300 miles for its ground-based cousin, Iskander.
Ballistics is a pretty straightforward science. Sir Isaac Newton established the formulae relating speed, angle, and distance traveled by a projectile more than 300 years ago, and the same formulae still work today.
Kinzhal is launched from a moving aircraft, starts at a high altitude, and flies faster, so will have a longer range than Iskander. Plugging the factors into Newton’s equation still only gives a maximum range of about 700 miles.
Where might all that extra come from?
A 2018 story in Russian State newspaper TASS describes plans to put Kinzhal on a Tu-22M3 “Backfire” bomber, which, it states, would increase its range from 1,200–1,800 miles. The Backfire is slower than the MiG-31 and flies at lower altitude, so it would give it less of a boost at launch, and you would expect a shorter range. The answer is simple.
“For the Tu-22M3, aboard which the missile will soon be tested, the hypersonic missile’s target destruction range will equal over 3,000 km [the carrier’s combat radius plus the missile’s range],” states TASS’s source.
Adding the plane’s combat radius would be like the USAF claiming that its JDAM bombs—actual range: 15 miles—had a range of 4,015 miles when carried by a B-52H bomber.
Perhaps to get the true range of the Kinzhal, we should subtract the combat radius of the MiG-31 from the 1,200 miles quoted by Putin, which would give a figure closer to the 700 miles mentioned above.
So, Putin’s new missile is not breaking the laws of physics—just stretching the truth.
“A lot of Russian claims about the range and speed of the Zircon missile [another hypersonic weapon] appear to be manifestly wrong, so we know their claims may be exaggerated,” says Kaushal.
Kinzhal is an expensive, high-performance weapon, especially compared to the cheap low-tech kamikaze drones supplied by Iran. While drones are available by the thousand, only a handful of Kinzhals have been fired in the conflict. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia had a stockpile of about 50 Kinzhals at the start of the war, and has used about a dozen of them.
“This is a costly capability, not produced at scale,” Kaushal says. “They have not appeared in large numbers.”
He notes also that Russia will not be able to use all of its Kinzhals, but will retain some for its nuclear missile forces.
The Bottom Line
The Kinzhal is not hypersonic, does not fly at Mach 10, nor does it have a range of 1,200 miles as Putin claimed. More importantly, the small numbers deployed will certainly not change the balance of the war, and its main value has been as a weapon of propaganda.
Putin’s biggest claim—that Kinzhal would be invulnerable to all current and future anti-missile defenses—is looking shaky. On May 4, Ukrainian defenders shot down a number of incoming missiles, and wreckage of one of them shared by Ukrainian source Defense Express showed what appear to be sections of a Kinzhal missile. The magazine’s analysts believe it was brought down by a U.S.-supplied Patriot PAC-3, dealing a blow to Russia’s claims over technological superiority.