This is the third in a series of posts regarding three Russian hypersonic missiles. The first post covered the concept of Circular Error Probable (CEP), a metric of accuracy. The second post covered the ground-launched Iskander short-range ballistic missile. This post will cover the air-launched Kinzhal missile. The Zircon (Tsirkon) will be covered in a coming post.

The KH-47M2 Kinzhal

The KH-47M2 Kinzhal (NATO designation AS-24 Killjoy) is a hypersonic (Mach 10-12) air-launched missile. The Kinzhal has been in the Russian inventory since 2017, but has gained notoriety during the Ukrainian War. It was first used in March, 2022 to destroy weapons armories in Western Ukraine. Later in 2022 and throughout 2023, Russia ramped up serial production of the Kinzhal and the weapon became a fixture in the regular drone and missile attacks on Ukrainian targets.

Development and Capabilities

The Kinzhal was developed from the ground-launched Iskander. Both are propelled by solid-fuel rocket engines. The Kinzhal’s GLONASS and optical guidance systems have been modified for their air-to-ground role. It delivers a Circular Error Probable of 1 meter.

Physical Characteristics

One could be forgiven for mistaking one missile for the other. Figure 1 shows a clear resemblance.

Figure 1. Comparison of Air-Launched Kinzhal to Ground-Launched Iskander

While the Iskander travels at speeds of Mach 6 to Mach 8, the Kinzhal travels at speeds of Mach 10 to Mach 12. At such high speeds, the missile is enveloped in a plasma cloud of ionized gas that is impenetrable by radar.

Detection and Interception Challenges

The Kinzhal’s high speed and plasma cloud makes it difficult (but not impossible) to detect with radar. Radar cannot see into the plasma cloud, but neither can the missile’s sensors see out. In the terminal phase, the Kinzhal slows enough for its own sensors to acquire the target. At certain points in its mission profile, the Kinzhal is vulnerable to detection.

Ukrainian Claims and Controversies

Ukrainian (which is now Western) air defense has difficulty shooting down Kinzhals. This is an understatement. Ukraine claimed to have downed a Kinzhal using a Patriot battery in defense of Kyiv, but this claim became controversial. Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, proudly posed for a photograph with the downed “Kinzhal” (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Mayor Vitali Klitschko poses with “Kinzhal” downed by Patriot over Kyiv.

Inspect Figure 2 and compare it to Figures 3 and 4. Figures 3 and 4 show details, from different aspects, of Kinzhals mounted on MiG-31K delivery platforms. Comparison of the missiles depicted in Figures 3 and 4 against the debris shown in Figure 2 raises questions about the object Klitschko is displaying. It’s not a Kinzhal nose cone. It might be the explosive warhead from inside the nose cone, but the object’s scale remains questionable.