Russia claims use of 'Kinzhal' hypersonic missile for first time in Ukraine

The Kinzhal or 'Dagger' missile can fly 10 times the speed of sound according to Russia's defence ministry

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Russia's Defence Ministry said it had used a hypersonic Kinzhal missile for the first time in action in Ukraine on Saturday.

The air-launched missile can travel up to ten times the speed of sound, according to Russian claims. Russia’s defence ministry said it was used to blow up a weapons depot in the west of the country, and released video of what it said was the attack.

Ukraine has yet to comment on the strike and Russia said the target was near Delyatyn, outside the city of Ivano-Frankivsk.

The claimed strike, if confirmed, would mark the first use of the nuclear-capable advanced weapons system in the Ukraine war, state news service RIA Novosti said.

Unveiled in 2018, Kinzhal missiles are air-launched, fired from Mig-31k fighter bombers or TU-22M3 bombers.

Hypersonic challenges

Kinzhal missiles, which can carry conventional or nuclear warheads, can reach speeds of more than 3.2 kilometres per second, President Vladimir Putin said when he announced the system in an annual state-of-the-nation address in 2018.

At that speed, the kinetic energy of the weapon could be enough to destroy a range of targets, even without an explosive warhead.

Russia said Saturday's strike targeted underground weapons storage, suggesting the need for a powerful "bunker busting" weapon.

In 2003, the US Air Force proposed using kinetic energy bunker busting weapons, rods of tungsten – an extremely strong rare metal, that would be fired from satellites and hit targets at Mach 8.8, destroying them with the sheer force of impact.

The project was abandoned due to prohibitive costs. The US has since launched a number of hypersonic missile programs, including an ongoing attempt to develop a Mach 20 weapon, the Air- Launched Rapid Response Weapon, the AGM-183A.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) tested a Mach 20 vehicle in 2011, which flew for three minutes before crashing.

Testing has been plagued by problems ever since and some experts believe it may be impossible to field a manoeuvrable weapon at such speeds, due to the extreme heat generated by air friction, a phenomenon known as aerodynamic heating.

At Mach 10, air friction can generate temperatures over 2000 kelvins, or around 1,700 celsius, hotter than the melting point of steel.

Hypersonic weapons are ideally manoeuvrable within the Earth's atmosphere because fixed trajectory weapons, such as conventional ballistic missiles, are easier to detect and intercept.

There has been no confirmation as to whether Russia's Kinzhal missile was able to manoeuvre or whether it followed a fixed trajectory like a conventional ballistic missile.

Countering Russian and Chinese programs, the Pentagon has requested a $12.6 billion budget to spend on researching and testing hypersonic weapons through to 2025.

In September last year, the US successfully tested the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), which at Mach 5 is slower than the Kinzhal.

Updated: March 20, 2022, 5:23 AM