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.

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.