Patriot SAM can’t take down ‘hypersonic’ Kinzhal; Ukraine never did

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In May 2023, it was proclaimed by Kyiv that they had intercepted and effectively neutralized numerous Russian Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. Key figures such as the mayor of Kyiv, Klitschko, proceeded to publicly display fragments they claimed were remnants of the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile. 

Photo by Alexey Kudenko

Without diving into specifics about how some of these details don’t align with the expected dimensions of a hypersonic rocket, let’s provide a quick clarification: If there’s any truth to these fragments being from an actual Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile, and considering the missile was supposedly intercepted by the MIM-104 Patriot, the chances are that the intercepted missile wasn’t truly hypersonic. The reason is, as it stands with current air defense technology, intercepting a hypersonic missile is next to improbable, if not entirely impossible. 

We also need to draw attention to the fact that Ukraine has not produced conclusive proof of successfully intercepting and neutralizing a Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile. This serves to further substantiate why existing air defense mechanisms—particularly those utilized by Ukraine—may not be advanced enough to intercept a hypersonic missile.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Let’s recall

On 4th May 2023, the Air Force of Ukraine was under the watchful command of General Mykola Oleschuk. During this time, he made a noteworthy statement concerning the interception of the Kinzhal, which was executed using the Patriot air defense system. 

Fast forward to 16th May 2023, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force reported an impressive feat – the successful interception of six Kinzhal missiles, each deployed by a different RuAF MiG-31K fighter. Amid the intrigue, it was however surprisingly revealed that one of the intercepted Kinzhal missiles had caused some damage to a Patriot battery! 

Photo credit: YouTube

Social media platforms basked in the humor, albeit questionably, suggesting that the Ukrainians claimed an interception whenever the Kinzhal made a terrestrial assault—dubbed a ‘ground interception.’ However, laughable as it may sound, such a feat is a clear impossibility. Here is why.

The role of the RuAF MiG-31

The RuAF’s MiG-31K aircraft, outfitted with Kinzhal missiles, don’t just lay dormant on the ground anymore. They are now constantly in the sky, keeping vigilant watch and maintaining active air patrols unlike in the past when airborne activity was solely to attack a specified target. 

Photo credit: Russian MoD

In recent times, the Russian arsenal of MiG-31K fighter planes was rather limited. However, a new report by “Izvestia” suggests that their numbers have significantly grown, with over two dozen MiG-31Ks now incorporated into the RuAF’s fleet. 

Previously, knowledge of an imminent Kinzhal attack for Ukraine came only from confirming the launch of a MiG-31K. However, the rules of engagement have changed, and Ukraine now finds itself potentially facing surprise Kinzhal attacks without any prior indication. 

The MiG-31K on patrol is always connected, receiving the target’s coordinates and radar images through a secure data link. The guidance data typically gathered through a radar imaging satellite, can be relayed directly to the MiG-31K or be routed through ground control.

MiG-31 guides the missile

The guidance and control system of the MiG-31K takes charge of loading the radar image of the target into the Kinzhal’s homing device, programming its autopilot, and establishing the missile’s launch point. Once these tasks are accomplished, the crew kicks off the fully automated launch sequence. 

The Kinzhal, on the other hand, is essentially a version of the Iskander-M missile including a reduced version of its rocket engine. In this case, the MiG-31K launch platform steps in to fill the void created by the reduction in the engine of the said Iskander-M missile. 

Photo credit: Raytheon

To fire off a Kinzhal, the MiG-31K needs to match the Iskander-M’s pace, altitude, and geographical coordinates, while maintaining a similar residual burn time. 

Upon the rocket’s readiness for launching, the crew initiates the launch sequence. The aircraft takes it from there, autonomously maneuvering to meet the precise parameters necessary for the missile’s release. Once these parameters are satisfied, the crew launches the rocket into its trajectory.

From Mach 2 to Mach 10

Generally speaking, a missile ascends to an elevation of roughly 20 kilometers at the brisk pace of Mach 2. Upon its release, the Kinzhal missile’s solid propellant rocket motor sparks to life, powering the ascent. The autopilot manages the rocket’s line of flight using aerodynamic fins. It speeds up to the edge of the stratosphere swiftly, aiming to reduce drag resistance. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

As the flight height advances, the aerodynamic fins lose their effectiveness and the missile resorts to thrust vector control. Upon reaching the stratosphere’s boundary, the missile adopts a horizontal flight path, while accelerating to a striking speed of Mach 10.

The missile maneuvers

From its embarkment to its destination, the missile utilizes an unpredictable path, constantly changing directions thanks to the enablement of thrust vector control and later, the use of fins. This uncommon maneuverability allows it to cleverly evade potential missile defenses. 

Upon reaching its intended zone, the missile springs into action by activating its active radar homing. This mechanism, like a vigilant sentinel, incessantly juxtaposes the radar snapshot captured by its seeker with the pre-loaded target image from its memory banks. 

Upon earmarking a correlation, it pivots and aligns its course to ensure a precise strike. This entire process ensures that the missile lands in extremely close proximity to its target, typically around a mere 10 meters away.

The challenge

Photo credit: South Front

For an anti-aircraft system to effectively intercept a target, it needs to precisely determine the coordinates in the airspace where both the target and interceptor missile would reach at the same time. 

Several factors are vital for a successful interception. These include the acceleration capabilities of the interceptor missile, the velocity of the target missile, and the target detection range of the radar system. Regardless of the scenario, the interception spot must be predictively set well ahead along the path of the target missile.

Continuous recalculation

Dealing with a situation where the detection range is limited and the target is traveling at breakneck speed, as in the case of intercepting a Kinzhal, finding an accurate aim point might just be a futile endeavor! 

Photo credit: German MoD

Only under the circumstance of very early detection could an aiming point be calculated. However, this would be solely based on the target missile’s current trajectory. If the trajectory of the target missile is ever-changing, the aim point would need to be recalculated indefinitely. 

As the interceptor missile nears the target missile, its momentum would jeopardize any chance of accurately tracking the target.

The conclusion is:

Photo credit: MWM

With our current technological resources, the interception of a hypersonic missile in its terminal phase of maneuvering is virtually unattainable. 

Nevertheless, there’s a potential opportunity to intercept the Kinzhal just moments after its deployment from the MiG-31K, particularly during its ascent to the stratosphere’s limit, in a phase where it is not performing any maneuvering. 

However, this presents a significant challenge. For this type of interception to occur, the anti-aircraft system, in this case, the Patriot, would have to be situated extraordinarily close to the Kinzhal’s launch site. Considering the Kinzhal has a range of 2,000 km, the probability of a Patriot battery existing within the 30 km [the range of a PAC-3 interceptor] vicinity of the Kinzhal’s launch location is quite scarce. 

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Furthermore, Ukraine has yet to provide concrete evidence to support its claim of having successfully brought down the Kinzhal.

Patriot SAM – a discrepancy

There are lingering doubts concerning Ukrainian assertions about US-produced Patriot systems successfully intercepting Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. 

Recall that before the conflict in Ukraine, numerous Patriot systems were set up by the US military within Baghdad’s Green Zone, which is home to a multitude of Western diplomatic and military missions. This particular area experienced frequent onslaughts from insurgents, who utilized cruise and short-range ballistic missiles in their attacks. 

Interestingly, the majority of these missiles are rooted in Iranian technology, suggesting they are technologically inferior to their Russian counterparts. Hence, an intriguing question arises – how is it that these Patriot systems, featuring advanced American technology, fail to intercept up to 50% of the missiles launched at the Green Zone, yet manage a 100% interception rate against hypersonic missiles? 

Invariably, there are two potential answers: either there has been no actual interception of hypersonic missiles, or the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is not truly a hypersonic missile.


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