In a significant tactical shift, Russian forces have reportedly deployed their formidable Kinzhal hypersonic missile from a Su-34 fighter bomber in Ukraine, marking the first instance of such an operation. This development has raised questions about the evolving strategy of the Kremlin in the ongoing conflict. The Kinzhal, also known as the “Dagger” or “Killjoy,” had become a regular feature of Russian missile strikes on Ukraine since the invasion began in February 2022. However, it was predominantly launched from the Soviet-era MiG-31K aircraft. This recent deployment hints at a broader adaptation of Russia’s air force capabilities.
Expanding Kinzhal’s Reach: The Su-34’s Unconventional Role
According to the Kremlin-backed TASS news agency, the Su-34 aircraft carried out the Kinzhal hypersonic missile strike. This marks a significant departure from the conventional mode of deployment, as the missile had previously been associated primarily with the MiG-31K platform.
Russia’s Su-34 multipurpose fighter bomber used the Kinzhal hypersonic missile in the course of the special military operation in Ukraine, a defense official told TASS:https://t.co/6ofPemyWJR pic.twitter.com/mPv4pIh03s
— TASS (@tassagency_en) September 4, 2023
Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, has asserted that making the Su-34 Kinzhal-capable is a “logical step” for Russia’s military. This adaptation could potentially free up the MiG-31 aircraft to serve as interceptors along the front lines. The MiG-31’s long-range radar and R-37 interceptors have proven effective in countering Ukrainian aircraft, as they can identify and engage cruise missiles, serving as an anti-cruise missile asset. Kaushal suggests that if the Su-34’s role as a missile launcher allows for the deployment of more MiG-31s in defensive roles could be pivotal, especially if the Ukrainian missile threat to Russian forces in Crimea escalates.
The Kinzhal Controversy: Too Much Hype?
The Kinzhal missile has been hailed by Moscow as an “unstoppable” next-generation weapon, with the capability to reach speeds ten times that of sound. However, Western experts have cast doubts on Russia’s characterization of the Kinzhal as a true hypersonic weapon. David Hambling, a military expert, pointed out to Newsweek that it is essentially an air-launched ballistic missile with limited course-correction capabilities. This assessment challenges the notion of the Kinzhal missile’s invulnerability to air defenses.
Despite the debate over its true nature, the deployment of the Kinzhal from additional platforms could have significant implications. Hambling notes that with more launch platforms, Russia might attempt to overwhelm air defenses by launching a barrage of Kinzhal missiles. Furthermore, it could be seen as an attempt to demonstrate technological advancements and bolster public confidence in Russia’s military capabilities.
Ukraine’s Response: Defying the Kinzhal Threat
Ukraine has claimed some success in countering the Kinzhal threat, asserting that they have shot down several of these missiles in recent months. Lt. Gen. Mykola Oleschuk, Ukraine’s Air Force commander, declared their ability to bring down the “unparalleled” Kinzhal missiles, further supported by the Pentagon confirming that a Ukrainian-operated Patriot system intercepted a Russian Kinzhal missile.
By mid-June, Kyiv reported shooting down over two dozen Kinzhal missiles in recent months. The British Defense Ministry commented on the “apparent vulnerability” of the Kinzhal, characterizing it as a potential surprise and embarrassment for Russia.
The Kremlin Honors the Kinzhal Pioneers
Meanwhile, the Russian military has acknowledged the achievements of the first crew to employ hypersonic, air-launched Kinzhal missiles during the ongoing military operation in Ukraine, presenting them with state awards.
Russia refers to its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation,” while Kyiv and its allies describe it as an unprovoked war for territorial expansion.
Putin’s Arsenal: The Kinzhal Among Next-Generation Weapons
Despite the recent deployment of the Kinzhal from Su-34 fighter-bombers, Russia remains relatively tight-lipped about the missile system. In March, the Russian Defense Ministry revealed that the Kinzhal had been deployed for the purpose of destroying Ukrainian targets.
Nonetheless, it was reported that the missile system was claimed by Russia as a “hypersonic” air-launched ballistic missile with an estimated range of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers and a speed up to Mach 10, capable of carrying either conventional or nuclear warheads. Although, as mentioned, Kinzhal has been noted to actually use a standard ballistic missile technology tuned up to travel at greater speed, which made many experts question its hypersonic designation. The Kinzhal is part of a group of six “next-generation” weapons that President Vladimir Putin unveiled in a speech in March 2018, signaling Russia’s commitment to maintaining a robust military presence in the region. However, it was said to have entered service months prior to Putin formally announcing the sophisticated weapon. The continued evolution and adaptation of these weapons systems, nevertheless, are likely to play a pivotal role in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
In conclusion, the deployment of the Kinzhal hypersonic missile from Su-34 fighter-bombers represents a notable shift in Russia’s military strategy in Ukraine. While questions about the missile’s true capabilities persist, its expanded use underscores the evolving dynamics of the conflict. Ukraine’s successful interceptions and Russia’s recognition of its crew add layers of complexity to this ongoing crisis, where advanced weaponry continues to play a pivotal role. As the conflict endures, the adaptation and utilization of next-generation weapons like the Kinzhal remain central to the geopolitical landscape in the region.