Russia’s biggest aerial attack in weeks hit targets across Ukraine on Thursday, using a complex barrage of weapons. Ukraine’s Air Force said that among them were six of Russia’s air-launched hypersonic missiles, known as Kinzhals, or Daggers — the most used in a single wave since the war began a year ago.
Here are the major questions raised by the use of the new missiles.
First, what are hypersonic missiles?
Hypersonic missiles are long-range, highly maneuverable munitions capable of reaching speeds of at least Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound, or more than a mile a second. That speed renders traditional air defense systems essentially useless, because by the time they are detected by ground-based radars, they are already nearly at their target.
China and the United States are in a race to develop and deploy hypersonic missiles. Other countries are also working on the technology, including Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea and South Korea.
How does the Kinzhal work?
The typical hypersonic vehicle carries its warhead to the lower boundary of space atop a traditional long-range missile. After separation, it uses gravity to gain tremendous speed on the descent back to earth. The vehicle may be an unpowered gliding craft, or it may be a cruise missile that uses gravitational acceleration to ignite a special “scramjet” engine that carries it hundreds of miles farther.
The Kinzhal is a little different. It is a modified version of the Russian Army’s Iskander short-range ballistic missile, which is designed to be fired from truck-mounted launchers on the ground. Launching the missile from a warplane at high altitude, instead of from the ground, leaves it with more fuel to use to reach higher speeds.
Aside from its ability to reach hypersonic speeds after its air launch, the Kinzhal is believed to behave like a ground-launched Iskander, meaning it is able to maneuver to make interception difficult. Some Iskanders also can release decoys before impact that are designed to further confuse air-defense radars.
Conventionally armed Iskanders are believed to carry about 1,500 pounds of explosives.
What else is known about the Kinzhal?
Russia originally developed the Kinzhal to breach American anti-missile defense systems and claims it reaches speeds of Mach 10 and greater. The Pentagon has said it is launched by MiG-31 warplanes.
Moscow first said it had deployed the Kinzhal in Ukraine nearly a year ago in an attack on an underground weapons dump, and has periodically claimed its use since.
There is another hypersonic missile Russia claims to have in its arsenal: the Zircon, a cruise missile that can be launched from ships. But Russia did not report test-firing the Zircon during exercises announced by President Vladimir V. Putin in January, and it is not known to have ever been used in combat.
Why are Kinzhals so worrisome for Ukraine?
Ukraine has no weapons capable of shooting down the Kinzhals, according to Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force.
And their use on Thursday significantly increased the proportion of Russia’s missiles reaching targets. Of the 81 missiles Russia fired overnight and through the morning, Ukraine said that 47 hit their targets, a higher ratio than usual. Ukraine noted that Russia had also fired more ballistic missiles and fewer cruise missiles than usual, a possible factor in the increase in successful strikes.
What are the limitations of the Kinzhal?
Targeting coordinates are loaded into the missile’s operating system before launch, and because of the tremendous speed it achieves in flight, any small deflection — for instance, a control surface on a wing moving slightly too much or too little — can result in a major deviation from the target. That may explain why one Kinzhal appears to have struck a car in Kyiv on Thursday, rather than a target with more military significance.
And like any hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal’s flight path reaches into the uppermost regions of Earth’s atmosphere before arcing back toward the earth for finer maneuvers. It can be detected by space-based sensors, though U.S. defense officials say those systems are insufficient against hypersonics.
Why would Russia use so much of its hypersonic arsenal in one wave?
Ukraine’s military intelligence agency has estimated Russia had, before the volley fired Thursday, no more than 50 Kinzhals, Mr. Ihnat said. Why Russia decided to fire six of them — potentially more than a tenth of its total arsenal — is unclear.
“For one reason or another, they needed a result” this time, Mr. Ihnat said.
But Russia may be able to replenish the Kinzhals relatively easily. Since the Kinzhal is simply a modified version of an existing missile, it could be easier to produce than, say, creating more Zircons, which have to be built from scratch.
Will the use of Kinzhals change the war?
Not necessarily, even if Russia can produce more Kinzhals relatively rapidly. Even though more of Russia’s missiles than usual got through on Thursday, an air war alone will not be decisive.
By comparison, Russia causes far more destruction through the thousands of artillery shells it fires in Ukraine.
And the ground war essentially remains in a grinding stalemate. Many analysts say that Russia’s long-anticipated spring offensive is already underway, but that it is having little impact because its troops and arsenals are so depleted.