Ukraine’s assertion that a US Patriot defense battery took out one of Russia’s most modern ballistic missiles is a notable moment in the conflict, now in its 15th month,
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military have touted the Kinzhal, or Kh-47, as an example of Russia’s modernized missile arsenal, claiming that its hypersonic speed makes it extremely difficult to intercept.
An air-launched ballistic missile, the Kh-47 has a range of some 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), so can be fired far from the battlefield.
It travels at about 10 times the speed of sound and is derived from the shorter-range Iskander ballistic missile, which is ground launched. It carries a warhead of nearly 500 kilograms.
Ukrainian intelligence believes Russia has only a few dozen Kinzhal missiles in its arsenal – a claim which couldn’t be independently verified.
Several Kinzhal missiles were launched at Ukrainian targets in March, but it’s not clear what damage they did or whether they all reached their targets. In April, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said Patriot systems had arrived from the US, Germany and the Netherlands.
If one of those systems has now destroyed a Kh-47, as the Ukrainians say, it calls into question the capabilities of one of Russia’s new generation of weapons.
After the Kinzhal was first tested, Putin told Russia’s Federal Council in 2018: “The unique flight characteristics of the high-speed carrier aircraft allow the missile to be delivered to the point of discharge within minutes.”
He also said that its hypersonic speed would allow it to “overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems, delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000 kilometers.”
Russia has made ambitious claims for several of its newer military systems, but their prowess is unproven.
Though deployed in small numbers, the Russians’ newest main battle tank, the T-90M, has appeared vulnerable to unsophisticated munitions, and the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, was sunk early in the conflict.
Analysts have questioned the Kinzhal’s capabilities during the final phase of its flight, suggesting it may not be as maneuverable or as fast as it approaches a target.
The deployment of the Patriot represents a sea change in Ukraine’s air defense capabilities, which have been highly reliant on Soviet-era S-300 air defenses – for which munitions now appear in short supply.
The Patriots provide a modern dimension to Ukraine’s air defense layers, as does the German IRIS-T system. But it’s also much more complex, requiring about 100 personnel to operate.
Ukrainian air force spokesman Yurii Inhat said Saturday that the Russians “were saying that the Patriot is an outdated American weapon, and Russian weapons are the best in the world.”
“Well, there is confirmation that it effectively works against even a super hypersonic missile.” Ihnat said, adding that intercepting the Kinzhal is “a slap in the face for Russia.”