Kyiv’s hard-kill of Russian Hypersonic Missile

From a threat perspective, along with Russia, the US is also concerned about the progress made by China’s hypersonic weapon program.

defence, ukraine, hypersonic missile, missile
Ukrainian Air Force has claimed that they had shot down a Russian Kinzhal Hypersonic missile. (File Image)

By Dr Ajey Lele

On May 06, 2023, the Ukrainian Air Force has claimed that they had shot down a Russian Kinzhal Hypersonic missile. The incoming missile, which is expected to have travelled with a speed, five times more than the speed of sound, was successfully engaged by the Patriot Air Defence missile system. If this claim is correct, then this single incident could have some impact on global perception about nuclear deterrence.

In the Ukraine conflict, on March 19, 2022 Russia had fired hypersonic missiles on the targets in Ukraine. This was the first time ever in history, the use of hypersonic missiles in actual war had happened. Since then, on a few occasions these missiles have been used by Russia on Ukrainian targets. Particularly, the attack carried out on Mar 09, 2023, the simultaneous attack using six missiles was known to be very lethal. The ‘Kh-47 Kinzhal’, also called as ‘Dagger’ has been designed to travel at speeds of more than 10 Mach (1 Mach equals the speed of sound). Experts always felt that use of this missile in the Ukraine conflict was not a military necessity and it was nothing but a disproportionate use of force. However, for Russia, more than the target on Ukrainian soil, the messaging was more important and that was obviously meant for the NATO forces.

From a threat perspective, along with Russia, the US is also concerned about the progress made by China’s hypersonic weapon program. The existing missile defence structures are known for their capabilities to rout any incoming supersonic missile attack. It is difficult for existing missile defence systems to stop the hypersonic missiles like Kinzhal,which travel towards the target with very high-speeds. Hence, it is very surprising how a Patriot Air Defence missile system was able to lock-on and neutralise the threat. This could be a fluke, and the Ukraine air defence could have got an accidental success. However, any definitive conclusion in this regard could be reached only after the proper analysis of data. Ukraine is not ready to share any more information, since that could help Russia in their planning.

Patriot (Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target) is a vintage surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, manufactured by the US defense contractor Raytheon. This system has been operational since 1984 and various improved versions are also available. This system has proven its worth in various wars including the 1991 Gulf war, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and the ongoing Syrian civil war since 2014. The success rate of this system is around 95%. Mainly states like Israel and Saudi Arabia are known to be using these systems, which are known to cost approximately US$1 billion per installation. Some time back, the US and the Netherlands each had agreed to donate a Patriot system to Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers had undergone training at Oklahoma for using this system.

Along with the Patriot system, the US also has THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile defence system, which has been operational since 2008 and is mainly designed for shooting down short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This system is deployed in states like Israel, Romania, South Korea, Turkey, and UAE. However, with threat from hypersonic missiles being at the doorstep, the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) and Space Development Agency (SDA) have started developing a system to defend against hypersonic weapons. MDA has requested $225 million for hypersonic missile defence in its fiscal 2023 budget. The development program is under fast-track stage. The US defence department is also known to be planning to develop directed energy systems and laser technologies for use in ballistic and hypersonic missile defence applications.

It is expected that the US would try to analyse the success achieved by Ukraine’s air defence structure in downing the hypersonic threat. A very critical assessment about this recent performance of the Patriot Air Defence missile system would be carried out. Irrespective of any technical assessment of the performance of the Patriot system, the US would be very keen to keep the mystery around performance tricking. Today, Russia is not very sure if the ‘kill’ happened accidently or did, the Patriot system performed beyond expectations. With no likely clarity in this regard in near future, possibly the Russian forces may restrict themselves from using hypersonic missiles over Ukraine theatre for now.

Nuclear tipped hypersonic weapons are known to be capable of penetrating the existing missile defence structures. Immediately, after the first hypersonic missile was fired during March 2022 by Russia, the US is known to have started reassessing their global strike capabilities. Perhaps somewhere, there was a realisation within the US administration that the Russian success puts a dent on their existing nuclear deterrence architecture. By successfully demonstrating the presence of war tested missiles in their arsenal Russia had ‘made a statement’ and they should have stopped at that. But, unnecessarily using more and more hypersonic missiles in Ukraine theatre, its novelty has got lost. Now with the Ukrainian claim of successful hypersonic missile interception, a significant amount of doubt has been created about the quality of Russia’s hypersonic program. During the last one year, with successful use of hypersonic missiles on some occasions, Russia could be said to have gained some tactical advantages. However, Kyiv downing their hypersonic missile,is a strategic loss for Russia.

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First published on: 09-05-2023 at 16:56 IST