The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is an air-launched Iskander-M ballistic missile based on weapon from the 1980s.
The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (Russian for Dagger) entered operational service in 2017, according to Russian statements made in 2018. It is not a new weapon, so much as a modified version of the ground-launched 9K720 Iskander tactical short-range ballistic missile — with a passive radar guidance system designed specifically for air-to-ground operations.
The Kinzhal guidance kits come from Kh-31P air-to-surface missile that uses ARGSN-31 passive radar guidance system capable of operating in a broad band of frequencies. Its seeker can operate in several homing modes, including automatic search and external control modes from passive electronically scanned radar. Since Kinzhal uses a broadband seeker, the seeker can be disrupted by electronic warfare systems and intercepted by an anti-air missile such as Barak-8 and Arrow 3 missile.
The Kinzhal’s trajectory has been modified to use cruise missile-like characteristics using inertia navigation systems and a modified TVC nozzle of the missile.
The 9K720 Iskander’s development began in 1988, but prolonged delays, brought about initially by the fall of the Soviet Union, prevented the first full flight test until 1998. A total of 13 test launches of the missile were conducted at Russia’s Kasputin Yar test range between 1998 and 2005, with the weapon finally entering operational service the following year, in 2006.
Like the Kinzhal, the Iskander missile achieves hypersonic velocities through a quasi-ballistic flight path that never departs the atmosphere, and it can maneuver throughout its trajectory to avoid being intercepted.
The 9K720 Iskander ballistic missile and Kh-47M2 Kinzhal are indeed capable ballistic weapons, but they’re a far cry from the cutting-edge technology usually referenced in conversations about hypersonic missiles.
The premise behind the Kinzhal missile is a pretty dated one — so much so that it shares a great deal in common with a 2006 NASA effort to leverage the Navy’s stockpile of retired AIM-54 Phoenix missiles for hypersonic flight testing.
The AIM-54 Phoenix missile was a smaller weapon than the Kinzhal, with a smaller single-stage solid-propellent rocket motor and less fuel on board, resulting in a top speed of Mach 4.3 when working as an air-to-air weapon.
But by adjusting its flight trajectory into a dramatic ballistic flight path and launching it at high speed, NASA believed they could reliable achieve hypersonic velocities greater than Mach 5 with the Phoenix missile.
Since Kinzhal is a modified ballistic missile using a passive radar seeker, the missile must be fired from a high-altitude aircraft that can fly at high speed to avoid collision with the launch aircraft itself.
Lack of radar seeker and proper TVC control were two reasons the Kinzhal was hitting shopping centres, and Kinzhal even hit a Russian town.
Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, while larger and carrying a more powerful solid-fuel rocket motor, works using the very same premise: using traditional rocket propulsion and a suppressed ballistic flight path.
The concept of air launching a ballistic missile is not new. It was explored by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Today, along with Russia, China is also pursuing these systems. Beijing has two ALBM projects in development, including one believed to be referred to by the US as the CH-AS-X-13. This missile is associated with the Xian H-6 medium bomber.
There have been a number of other air-launched ballistic missile efforts over the years, including one 1974 US Air Force program that successfully air-launched an actual Minuteman I ICBM from the back of a C-5 cargo plane.
The Kinzhal as ‘hypersonic’ to help sell other dated weapons
Russia’s defense budget tends to hover at around $60 billion per year, which places them on fairly equal footing with nations like the UK, despite maintaining a significantly larger force than that of its spending peers. As a result, Russia has been forced to make hard decisions regarding the allocation of its meager budget.
Russia just can’t afford to mass-produce advanced aircraft like the Su-57, MiG-35, Su-75 fighter or tanks like the T-14 Armata without foreign interests footing the bill. And in order to attract those foreign buyers, Russia has to spread propaganda about the performance of their weapons or the capability of their defense industrial complex.
So by taking advantage of the general public’s misconceptions when it comes to things like the term “hypersonic,” Russia is able to sell 1980s Su-35 and MiG-29M2 to Egypt.
While it’s technically accurate to call the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal a hypersonic missile, it’s accurate in the same way we might call Hitler’s V-2 rocket a hypersonic missile.
The weapons may not be perfect, nor it is accurate. Nevertheless, it is still a vital weapon in Russia’s arsenal.
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