The Ukraine war is a giant mess. And like a lot of proxy wars, it puts military training and equipment into the crucible. Over the two decades, we’ve mainly been the ones having our equipment and doctrines going through a meatgrinder in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Ukraine has been a role reversal with top-of-the-line Russian equipment and less top-of-the-line American equipment being tested for a change, and the results are interesting.
The Ukrainian military shot down a hypersonic Russian missile over Kyiv using the newly acquired Patriot missile defense system, an air force commander confirmed on Saturday.
It’s the first time Ukraine has been known to intercept one of Moscow’s most sophisticated weapons, after receiving the long-sought, American-made defense batteries from the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands.
“Yes, we shot down the ‘unique’ Kinzhal,” Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk said on Telegram, referring to a Kh-47 missile, which flies at 10 times the speed of sound. “It happened during the night time attack on May 4 in the skies of the Kyiv region.”
Like everything that comes out of Ukraine or Russia, claims by both sides should be taken with a small mountain of salt. Both sides push non-stop propaganda and casually make things up because they sound good.
That said, it may not be so implausible.
In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech announcing a slew of new weapons to defeat American anti-missile technology. That included three hypersonic weapons, one of which was a new missile called “Kinzhal” or “Dagger,” launched from a jet fighter to attack ground targets and ships.
“The missile flying at a hypersonic speed, ten times faster than the speed of sound, can also maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory,” Putin said. “Which also allows it to overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads to a range of over 2,000 kilometers. [1200 miles].”
Nobody really believes that Kinzhal can “maneuver at all phases of its flight trajectory”.
“Kinzhal is nothing more than an air-launched ballistic missile,” Jeffrey Lewis, Ph.D., of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, tells Popular Mechanics. “It’s only hypersonic in the sense that pretty much all ballistic missiles are hypersonic.”
The missile itself is technically 9M723, a short-range ballistic missile, carrying 1,000 pounds of high explosive or a small nuclear warhead. The rocket flies on a “quasi-ballistic” trajectory, meaning that rather than traveling on a smooth curve like a cannonball, it makes random minor course changes so its path cannot be predicted. This makes it difficult to intercept, but this is not the same as being able to maneuver…
The quasi-ballistic approach is hardly unique; others, such as the U.S. Army’s ATACMS missile, do the same thing.
Shooting down a Kinzhal would puncture its mythos. If the Patriot system is capable of intercepting a Kinzhal, the whole notion that it’s a game-changing next-generation technology that America can’t defend against falls apart.
But Russians did invent the original ‘Potemkin Village’. No one’s going to be too surprised at grandiose claims with nothing behind them.
The real burning questions involve Chinese military tech which hasn’t seen this kind of trial-by-fire. Barring a larger conflict between China and India, we may be the ones to test it out and that’s not a good position to be in.
It’s also why watching the fireworks in Ukraine is so valuable.