Kinzhal

The Kinzhal is a nuclear-capable, Russian air-launched ballistic missile, likely derived from Russia’s ground-launched Iskander-M. It was one of six “next generation” weapons unveiled by President Putin during a speech in March 2018.1

Kinzhal at a Glance

Originated from: Russia
Possessed by: Russia
Alternative name: KH-47M2 Kinzhal (trans: “Dagger”)
Class: Air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM)
Basing: Modified MiG-31 fighter
Length: 8.0 m
Diameter: 1.0 m
Payload: 480 kg
Warhead: Nuclear or conventional
Range: 1,500-2,000 km
Status: Operational
In Service: 2017-present

Kinzhal Development

kinzhal
Photo credit: Youtube / Russian Aerospace Forces

Although it is unclear when Kinzhal development began, concept schemes of Russian Iskander missiles installed on the MiG-31 fighter began circulating online around 2010. These pictures were reportedly copied from a brochure-prospectus of a Russian defense corporation.2

Based on these concept schemes, as well as the missile’s capabilities and general appearance, analysts say it is likely derived from the ground-launched Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile.3 The benefits of creating an air-launch variant include greater range, deployability, and flexibility over ground-based Iskander missiles.4 Additionally, the animated Kinzhal in Putin’s March 1 speech was shown targeting naval vessels, so it may also have (or plan to develop) antiship capabilities.5

Russia likely developed the unique missile to more easily target critical European infrastructure (e.g. airfields, warehouses, command centers, etc.) and to counter U.S. theater missile defenses such as THAAD.6 An aircraft’s ability to launch from unpredictable directions would strain sectored (non-360 degree) radars, such as those currently deployed with the Patriot system. Additionally, if the Kinzhal does indeed have antiship capabilities, it may also pose a threat to U.S. and NATO aircraft carriers.

Specifications

The Kinzhal has a reported range of 2,000 km while carrying a nuclear or conventional payload of 480 kg. It has similar dimensions as the OTK 9M723 Iskander-M; according to one report, the Kinzhal has a length of 8 m, a body diameter of 1 m, and a launch weight of approximately 4,300 kg.7 There are key distinct features from the ground-based Iskander, however, including a redesigned tail section, reduced rudders, and a special stub at the missile’s tail designed to protect engine nozzles during high-speed fight.8

Following launch, the Kinzhal rapidly accelerates to Mach 4 (4,900 km/h), and may reach speeds of up to Mach 10 (12,350 km/hr). This speed, in combination with the missile’s erratic flight trajectory and high maneuverability, could complicate interception.9 It is worth noting that Russia’s designation of the Kinzhal as a “hypersonic” missile is somewhat misleading, as nearly all ballistic missiles reach hypersonic speeds (i.e. above Mach 5) at some point during their flight.

Service History

kinzhal
Photo credit: Youtube / Sputnik Radio

The missile reportedly entered a trial period at airfields in southern Russia in December 2017.10 On March 11, Russian media released footage of a reported Kinzhal test fire, which showed the missile equipped to a modified MiG-31 fighter.11 The video does not show the resulting strike, but Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced a success: “The launch was normal; the hypersonic missile hit the preset target on the test site.”12 Russian reports indicate that the missile has entered service, and according to one defense journalist, six MiG-31s have been modified to carry the missiles and are based in Akhtubinsk in southwest Russia, about 150 km east of Volgograd.13 Some analysts are skeptical of this claim, but note that among Putin’s “next generation” nuclear weapons, the Kinzhal is likely the closest to operational deployment.14


Sources

  1. Tony Wesolowsky, “’Listen To Us Now’: Putin Unveils Weapons, Vows To Raise Living Standards In Fiery Annual Address,” Radio Free Europe, March 1, 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-set-give-annual-address-amid-presidential-election-campaign/29069948.html.
  2. Alexey Ramm, “The dagger of Iskander,” iz.ru, March 2, 2018, https://iz.ru/715127/aleksei-ramm/kinzhalnyi-udar-iskandera.
  3. Kyle Mizokami, “Russia Shows Off Its Latest Hypersonic Missile,” Popular Mechanics, March 12, 2018, https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a19410091/russia-shows-off-its-latest-hypersonic-missile/; Tyler Rogoway, “Putin’s Air-Launched Hypersonic Weapon Appears To Be A Modified Iskander Ballistic Missile,” The Drive, March 2, 2018, http://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/18943/putins-air-launched-hypersonic-weapon-appears-to-be-a-modified-iskander-ballistic-missile.
  4. Rogoway, “Putin’s Air-Launched Hypersonic Weapon Appears To Be A Modified Iskander Ballistic Missile.”
  5. Russia Insight, “BREAKING: Putin Reveals Hypersonic, High-Precision-Guided “Kinzhal” (Dagger) Air-Missile System,” YouTube, March 2, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG1Z7SpGN_A.
  6. As Kyle Mizokami writes, “THAAD cannot engage aircraft, so a MiG could fly close to the target and then launch the high-velocity missile, giving shorter-range defenses such as Patriot PAC-2 and PAC-3 minimal time to react and intercept.” See Mizokami, “Russia Shows Off Its Latest Hypersonic Missile.”
  7. Vladimir Karnozov, “Putin Unveils Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile,” AIN Online, March 2, 2018, https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/defense/2018-03-02/putin-unveils-kinzhal-hypersonic-missile.
  8. Ramm, “The dagger of Iskander.”
  9. Dave Majumdar, “Russia Just Fired a Hypersonic Missile from a MiG-31 Fighter. Should America be Worried?” The National Interest, March 12, 2018, http://www.nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russia-just-fired-hypersonic-missile-mig-31-fighter-should-24871.
  10. Matt Stroud, “Inside the race for hypersonic weapons,” The Verge, March 6, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/6/17081590/hypersonic-missiles-long-range-arms-race-putin-speech.
  11. Radio Sputnik, “Launch of the Hypersonic Aviation and Missile System Dubbed Kinzhal,” March 11, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GorrpZnEXME.
  12. TASS News Agency, “Russian Aerospace Forces test launch Kinzhal hypersonic missile,” March 11, 2018, http://tass.com/defense/993439.
  13. Tom Demerly, ”Russia Test Fires New Kh-47M2 Kinzhal Hypersonic Missile,” The Aviationist, March 12, 2018, https://theaviationist.com/2018/03/12/russia-test-fires-new-kh-47m2-kinzhal-hypersonic-missile/.
  14. Michael Kofman, “Emerging Russian Weapons: Welcome to the 2020s (Part 1 – Kinzhal, Sarmat, 4202),” Russia Military Analysis, March 4, 2018, https://russianmilitaryanalysis.wordpress.com/tag/kinzhal/.
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