The Russian Ministry of Defence on March 18 reported that Russian forces had used Kinzhal hypersonic missiles and destroyed an underground depot for missiles and aviation ammunition in the village of Delyatina in Western Ukraine. The use of missiles was also confirmed by US officials. According to US officials, the launch aimed to test weapons and send a message to the West about Russia’s military capabilities.
In this article, I discuss available Russian hypersonic missiles and review other Russian military capabilities that are used in military operations in Ukraine that potentially use emerging disruptive technologies.
Russian hypersonic missiles
First of all, it should be mentioned that hypersonic weapons are considered one of the disruptive technologies used in warfare, alongside such technologies as artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, big data, quantum technology, biotechnology, and novel materials.
Hypersonic missiles fly at a speed of at least 5 Mach or five times the speed of sound. There are two categories of hypersonic weapons: the first, when the rocket carrier carries the hypersonic glider and detaches from the carrier during the flight, and the second, when the rocket itself is hypersonic and is driven by high-speed engines throughout the flight. Unlike ballistic missiles, which fly at hypersonic speeds, hypersonic weapons do not follow a parabolic ballistic trajectory and can manoeuvre freely end route to the target, making them more difficult to detect and destroy in the flight.
Russia currently has two and is still developing the third type of hypersonic weapon that can also carry nuclear warheads: the Avangard, Kinzhal, and 3M22 Zircon. The Avangard is a hypersonic glider launched from a ballistic missile, such as the SS-19 Stileto, SS-9 Scarp, and SS-X-29 Sarmat. According to Russian news sources, Avangard began combat duty in December 2019. The Russian army’s arsenal was supplemented by the air-launched hypersonic rocket Kinzhal in December 2017. The Kinzhal can be launched from the TU-22 bomber or the MIG-31 fighter. Zircon, meanwhile, is a hypersonic cruise missile to be operational in 2023, currently being tested.
The Kinzhal missile can also be used to destroy satellites in low earth orbit. It is estimated that the Kinzhal missile, flies up to 2,000 km. in distance and can reach up to 1,500 km. in height. After intensive testing and the acceptance of the Kinzhal missile into the arsenal of the Russian army in 2017, it was used twice: in the Arctic region in 2019, and in Syria in 2021. In both cases, the missiles were launched from the MIG-31 fighter jet. The total number of Kinzhal missiles produced is unknown.
It should be noted that not every Russian MIG-31 fighter can carry a Kinzhal missile. A specialised version of the MIG-31K has been developed for this purpose. In total, the Russian Air Force is estimated to have up to 10 modernised fighter jets dedicated exclusively to this task. The TU-22 bomber can carry four Kinzhal missiles. However, it is believed that no tests have been carried out from this platform.
In conclusion, it should be mentioned that the Russian army has a very large arsenal of air-to-ground missiles, so the use of the Kinzhal missile in the war in Ukraine had more symbolic than practical significance. Russia may likely use both the Avangard hypersonic missile and the ship-launched hypersonic cruise missile Cirkon to boost the word about the effectiveness of its hypersonic weapons.
Use of other disruptive technologies in the Ukrainian war
Russia has made significant progress in the areas of artificial intelligence and autonomous weapons systems, where several Russian institutes and military industries specialize. However, a detailed analysis of the military equipment used by the Russian military in Ukraine reveals that only unmanned aerial vehicle systems (UAV) are used in practice. All other systems, even those that have been widely used in Syria, are not intensively used because, in the first place, they are not numerous and, secondly, have not reached the required level of maturity.
Russia currently uses a very small amount of available UAVs which may be due to several factors. Firstly, Russia’s planned military operation was to last three days, and no high resistance was expected, so the deployment of the UAVs was minimally planned due to the very high pace of the operation. Secondly, the demonstration of the successful air defence of Ukraine and electronic warfare against UAVs influenced the choice of the commanders of the Russian army. Also, the targets attacked by Russia are located throughout the entire territory of Ukraine, so the technical characteristics of the available UAVs do not allow them to support the operations at such depth and frequency. Russia’s use of UAVs will likely intensify in the near future, as the war is slowly becoming static. The importance of these systems in combating positional warfare has been repeatedly demonstrated.
Recently, the Russian-made kamikaze UAV KUB-BLA was used in hostilities in Ukraine near Kyiv. The operation of KUB-BLA is based on artificial intelligence algorithms, so it can autonomously identify the target and destroy it. It should be noted that KUB-BLA has been tested in an operation in Syria, where it has carried out many successful operations. The KUB-BLA is a hard-to-detect UAV that can fly up to 40 kilometres; it has a flight speed of up to 130 km / h, and can carry an explosive charge that weights up to one kilogram. In many cases, UAVs could be used in destroying unarmed or lightly armoured targets and create a surprise effect.
In summary, once the nature of the war in Ukraine would change (meaning from manoeuvre to static positions) and more intensive battles in the city would begin, then it would be possible to see and track the wider use of the means available in the Russian army that possess elements of emerging disruptive technologies. The Russian advance at this scale and magnitude would firstly require to use of existing legacy systems, and the effectiveness has already been proven multiple times.
The author of the comment is Donatas Palavenis, the BPTI junior researcher.