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Why the Russian Kinzhal missile fails to counter Patriot: Analysis

Why the Russian Kinzhal missile fails to counter Patriot: Analysis Patriot air defense system debunks the myth about hypersonic Kinzhal missile (Photo: Getty Images)

Why has Russia intensified shelling across Ukraine, and is the Kinzhal as a terrifying weapon as NATO feared? Aviation expert and former engineer at the Antonov Design Bureau, Kostiantyn Kryvolap, shared his insights in a column for RBC-Ukraine.

One of Russia's main objectives is to divert our air defense forces away from the front lines, allowing their aviation to operate more freely. Clearly, they are achieving this by shelling Kyiv. We lack sufficient air defense systems for both the front lines and the rest of Ukraine. According to various estimates, a country like ours would require 10-20 Patriot-type systems. All other targets of these attacks, in my opinion, are secondary.

The Kinzhal is essentially a modified version of the Iskander-M. In reality, it is difficult to find its true characteristics. Hypersonic is commonly defined as a missile that follows a trajectory, maneuvers along that trajectory, and hits a target at hypersonic speeds, which are five or more times the speed of sound, also known as Mach speed.

The carrier of the Kinzhal is MiG-31K, a high-altitude interceptor capable of rapidly gaining altitude and speed. According to various sources, Russia has only six MiGs capable of carrying Kinzhals. Each MiG can carry one such missile.

The claimed speed of the missile is around 2.5 Mach, reaching up to 3 Mach at higher altitudes. Upon launch, the missile's engine ignites, and it accelerates, but information about its speed varies. In Russia, they claim it reaches 10 Mach. However, this is not widely believed. Russian enthusiasts on forums claim it realistically achieves a maximum of 5-5.5 Mach. At this speed, the missile is not in communication with either GPS or GLONASS.

The trajectory of this missile is as follows: it accelerates, then rapidly climbs upwards, the engine consumes fuel, and then it begins to descend. When it enters the lower layers of the atmosphere, it decelerates sharply, and only then does the missile have the opportunity to establish navigation and aim. However, at such speeds, achieving precise targeting is almost impossible. Therefore, the high accuracy of the Kinzhal, as claimed in Russia (3-10 meters), lacks confirmation.

Moreover, when it approaches the ground, its speed ranges from 1.5 to 2.5 Mach, depending on different estimates. In other words, it is no longer traveling at hypersonic speeds. For the Patriot system, this is not considered fast as its anti-missile defenses are faster. Additionally, a Patriot radar can track over 100 targets simultaneously.

Therefore, the version that they wanted to destroy the Patriot with the Kinzhal raises certain doubts. After all, the entire complex consists of no less than five vehicles (including the radar) and eight launchers. As time has revealed through publications in American media, some of the launched missiles did cause damage to specific Patriot elements, but the system remains operational.

The prototype of the Kinzhal, the Iskander, has a sufficiently high accuracy rate. It is possible that the Russians used the Kinzhal to force the Patriot elements to reveal their locations while intending to target them with the Iskander. However, on the other hand, the Kinzhal is a relatively simple ballistic missile that the Patriot system can handle. Thus, it could have been some kind of experiment to simultaneously terrorize the population.

I examined the Russian arsenal of missile weaponry and could not find anything in that list that could be a serious argument against the Patriot system, although the Patriot itself is quite an old system. The Russians understand that we are receiving various means of air defense, and our air defense systems are only getting stronger. Additionally, Storm Shadow missiles are being introduced, which present yet another challenge for the Russians. I asked myself: What can they do? What can they oppose? I couldn't find the answers.