Dual warhead upgrade: Russian Kh-101 missile packs double punch

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Reports inform us that Russia is upgrading its air-launched cruise missile, the Kh-101, by adding a second warhead. This adjustment effectively doubles its potential threat level. The news of this modification came following the interception of a variant of the Kh-101 missile by the Ukrainian air defense forces on March 29.  

Photo credit: Telegram

Details from the @war_home Telegram channel revealed that the intercepted missile was equipped with an additional warhead, effectively doubling its total payload. An examination of the missile’s debris indicated an increased explosive payload mass from 400 to 800 kilograms, signifying its augmented destructive potential.  

According to Ukrainian sources, this enhancement was achieved by reducing the size of the fuel tank. Even though this change reduced the missile’s range from 5,500 to approximately 2,250 kilometers, it created space for the extra warhead, without compromising the missile’s operational effectiveness. 

Photo credit: Reddit

Russia has warned against this concept

First mentioned in January 2024 by Sergei Shoigu, head of the Russian Ministry of Defense, during his visit to “Raduga,” the missile design bureau, the dual warhead concept has finally become a reality. As expected, these upgrades instigated a wave of concern about the potential impact of ongoing conflicts. The Telegram channel “Polkovnyk HSH” provides some context, sharing photographs of the additional warheads and highlighting this breakthrough after analyzing a grounded Kh-101 missile from the recent March 29 attack. 

Alarmingly, the added warhead consists of pre-made damaging components of a cubic shape. These are typically found in anti-aircraft missiles, but now they pose an intensified threat to ground targets as well. Though the missile’s range is decreased due to the reduced fuel tank size, the tactical effectiveness of the Kh-101 in the Russia-Ukraine conflict remains largely unimpaired. Despite the cut in the distance, potential targets in western Ukraine continue to be within the missile’s reach, thanks to its significant maneuvering capability. 

Photo credit: Twitter

In the mid-2010s, Russian sources discussed the idea of the Kh-101 housing dual warheads, hinting at the feasibility of splitting the 400 kg warhead into two separate sections. That said, the specifics of the release mechanism in the refurbished version remain undisclosed.

Russian Kh-101 Cruise Missile

The recent introduction of dual warheads in the Kh-101 attests to Russia’s relentless adaptation of its arsenal to meet the demands of modern combat. This discovery comes after an incident in December 2023 when a Russian Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile was observed deploying decoy flares during its flight. 

Photo: Missile Threat

At the time, experts speculated that the flares were programmed to launch at specific coordinates, likely in the closing stages near the target or where potential threats existed along the missile’s trajectory. Notable enhancements in the Kh-101’s guidance system have also been observed, with notable improvements to its optical and electronic systems. 

The updated Kh-101 now features three static lenses. This advancement enhances its accuracy compared to the previous model, which contained only one lens on a rotating platform with limited tilt angles. The Kh-101 and its nuclear-equipped counterpart, the Kh-102, represent a significant overhaul of the Kh-55/Kh-555 lineage, featuring stealth capabilities and other upgrades.

Used for the first time in 2015

Video screenshot

Designed to carry a 20-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, the Kh-102 variant serves as the primary air-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile for the Russian Aerospace Force [VKS]. Although it bears an external resemblance to the US AGM-158 JASSM air-launched cruise missile, the Kh-101 boasts a superior range. 

Strategic bombers, like the upgraded Tu-160M and Tu-95MSM, are outfitted to transport the Kh-101, offering a variety of warhead choices including high explosive, penetration high explosive, and submunitions. The Kh-101 features a dual-circuit turbojet engine, incorporating the R95TM-300 models. Upon activation, the engine extends from the body and the tail unfolds, allowing for in-flight trajectory adjustments for the missile. 

Russia claims that Kh-101 missiles can theoretically hit moving targets with a remarkable accuracy up to 10 meters, and asserts standard circular probable deviation of 7 meters at ranges up to 5,500 kilometers. Manufactured by the Raduga Design Bureau, Russia affirms that the Kh-101 comprises Russian components. 

Photo by Sergei Fedichev

The Kh-101 was first used operationally in November 2015 during Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war. While many of the initial missile strikes successfully hit their targets, one missile reportedly fell on Iranian territory near the city of Shush, located 750 kilometers from the Syrian border.

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