And How Much Does Speed Really Matter?
by Ilya Tsukanov
Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile made the news this week after destroying a Patriot radar station and five launchers in overnight strikes in Kiev on May 16. How did the Kinzhal get through? What other countries possess ultrafast missiles? Why is it that speed isn’t always everything? Check out our explainer to find out.
According to independent US media, the Patriots fired off as many as 32 interceptor missiles at the Kinzhals targeting them in a desperate attempt to intercept them. The Pentagon went into damage control, mindful that admitting the missile defense system’s weaknesses against Russian missiles would undermine global faith in the superiority of US weapons. Patriot missile maker Raytheon saw up to $10 billion shaved from its stock valuation over the news that its coveted weapons system had been hit.
US officials claimed the systems were “damaged,” but assured that they had not been destroyed. Ukraine’s military, meanwhile, claimed that it shot down six Kinzhals without losing any Patriots. The Russian military offered no comment.
But what else does Russia have in its missile arsenal?
What is the Fastest Russian Missile?
The Kinzhal is one of the speediest and most advanced missile systems in Russia’s arsenal, but not the only one. The weapon is an air-launched hypersonic missile with a range of between 2,000 and 3,000 km, and a reported speed of Mach 10 (11,925km per hour) or even higher. The Patriot’s interceptors are significantly slower, capable of accelerating to Mach 2.8 (3,340 km/h) in the case of the PAC-1, and Mach 4.1 (5,000 km/h) in the case of its PAC-2 and PAC-3 variants.
The Kinzhal is not the fastest missile in Russia’s arsenal, with the strategic RS-28 Sarmat, and the submarine-launched Bulava missiles capable of accelerating to speeds of up to Mach 20 (25,500 km/h) and Mach 24 (28,600+ km/h), respectively. And while these are not hypersonic missiles, but ballistic weapons which travel into space and then release warheads that fall to Earth, they are capable of maneuvering like their hypersonic cousins (Bulavas at their boost stage, Sarmat warheads as they approach targets, or Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles fitted aboard Sarmats), theoretically making their interception impossible. Theoretically, because these weapons have never been tested in actual warfare, and, hopefully, never will, because their use would likely signal the start of a Third World War.
When it comes to missiles, speed isn’t everything, and the lower intercept speed wouldn’t be a problem if the Patriot were locking on to a traditional ballistic missile flying on a known trajectory. The problem is, missiles like the Kinzhal are capable of maneuvering in flight, making course corrections to make it more difficult to predict its trajectory and exact course.
What is the Number One Fastest Missile in the World?
Determining a missile’s maximum speed depends on definitions. As stated above, strategic intercontinental ballistic missiles typically have the highest speed characteristics, with the US ground-based LGM-30 Minuteman having a rating of Mach 23 (28,200 km/h), and the UGM-133 Trident II submarine-launched missile a top speed of Mach 24 in its terminal phase). The Chinese DF-41 ICBM is reportedly capable of flying up to Mach 25 (30,600 km/h), making it perhaps the fastest ballistic missile in the world today. As for hypersonics, the Avangard glide vehicle appears to enjoys the coveted top spot, with a maximum boost speed of up to Mach 27 (32,200 km) in near-space conditions (although this falls to an estimated Mach 15-20 by atmospheric drag on descent).
What is the BrahMos Missile, and Does Russia Use It?
The BrahMos ramjet supersonic cruise missile jointly developed by Russia and India carries the distinction of the fastest cruise missile in the world, with a top speed of Mach 3.5 (about 4,175 km/h) – fast enough to make short work of enemy vessels and ground-based targets and their air defenses. A new variant of the missile, the Brahmos 2, is under development, with an expected maximum speed of up to Mach 8 (9,800 km/h) thanks to innovative use of a scramjet air-breathing jet engine. The Brahmos 2 is a development of the 3M22 Zircon, a Russian scramjet-powered anti-ship cruise missile which entered into service in January.
Why are High Speed Missiles So Important to Russia’s Deterrence Doctrine?
Why does Russia seem to be at the top or near the top of most rankings when it comes to the capabilities of its hypersonic, ballistic, and cruise missiles? The answer is simple. Inheriting a massive head-start on advanced missile technology and the blueprints for the earliest hypersonic missiles from the USSR, which began work on them in the late 1960s, while missile tech was one of the areas where R&D investments was not totally curtailed in the 1990s.
In 2002, after the United States unceremoniously pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, President Vladimir Putin ordered work on existing projects to be accelerated, and for new ones to be laid down, amid concerns that the creation of a US strategic missile defense system could “neutralize and render obsolete our entire nuclear potential.” These efforts bore fruit, and in 2020, Putin said that for the first time in its modern history, Russia had come to possess “the most modern types of weapons, which are far superior in terms of their force, power, speed, and, very importantly, in terms of accuracy compared to all which existed before them and exist today.”
These upgrades to Russia’s missile capabilities couldn’t have been more timely, because at the same time that Washington scrapped the ABM Treaty, the Pentagon began working on “Prompt Global Strike” – an ambitious, but highly dangerous, initiative proposing mass precision-guided conventional missile strikes to decapitate adversaries’ political and military leadership and missile deterrents, thus stripping them of the ability to retaliate to aggression.
Basically, the possession of ultra-high speed missiles capable of maneuvering, evading missile defenses, and masking their destination provide Russia with a kind of missile “shield,” allowing the country’s leadership to sleep soundly at night in the knowledge that surprise enemy aggression would be met with an inevitable and devastating response – thereby deterring any itchy trigger fingers at the Pentagon and forcing it to keep ideas like Prompt Global Strike on the drawing board.