What are hypersonic missiles and why is the west developing them amid Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Super-fast rockets fired as part of latest missile barrage of Ukrainian cities including Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odessa

Joe Sommerlad
Thursday 09 March 2023 11:10 GMT
Smoke rises over Kyiv as Russian strikes hit regions across Ukraine

Russia launched its first large-scale missile assault on Ukrainian cities for several weeks in the early hours of Thursday 9 March, firing at least 81 missiles and killing at least five people.

The capital Kyiv, Kharkiv and the Black Sea port of Odessa were all struck as air raid sirens rang out across the nation while explosions were also reported in the northern city of Chernihiv and the western Lviv region, as well as in Dnipro, Lutsk and Rivne.

Among the projectiles fired were six Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic ballistic missiles, according to the Ukrainian Air Force, which are difficult to intercept because they reportedly travel at up to ten times the speed of sound, which is around 8,000mph.

Russia has used hypersonic missiles since the earliest stages of the conflict, claiming to have destroyed a fuel depot in the Black Sea city of Mykolaiv and an underground ammunition store in western Ivano-Frankivsk in the opening skirmishes.

Ukraine has confirmed that those targets were struck but did not specify what weapons were used.

Hypersonic missiles, like the Kinzhal rockets deployed by the Russian Air Force, are thought to represent the next generation of arms because they can move at such exceptionally high velocities.

By comparison, a subsonic cruise missile like the US Air Force’s Tomahawk rocket moves at a relatively sluggish 550mph.

Kinzhals are typically carried by MiG-31K fighter jets and can hit targets as far away as 1,250 miles, their speed, mid-flight manoeuvrability and ability to fly at low altitudes making them difficult to track using radar on the ground and therefore near-impossible to stop.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the Kinzhal can carry a nuclear warhead as well as a conventional explosive, a strategy it has been feared Russia could resort to as its war in Ukraine becomes more desperate and drawn-out than expected due to the heroic resistance put up by the locals.

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, however, has argued that the weapons will make little difference on the ground and that their true value is “giving a certain psychological and propaganda effect”.

In other words, inspiring terror.

Vladimir Putin has boasted of Russia’s investment in such “invincible” weaponry, justifying doing so as a response to what he considers to be Nato military expansion on his country’s doorstep in Eastern Europe, the same line of thinking that has led to the present war.

The US and China are said to be working on their own hypersonic rockets, as are the navies of Britain and France, which are understood to have been collaborating on one known as Perseus since 2011, although it is not expected to enter service for another eight years.

Last year, Australia, the UK and US, together known as the Aukus nations, have announced that they plan to expand their military pact to collaborate on the development of hypersonic missiles and anti-hypersonic weapons.

Then-prime ministers Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson joined US president Joe Biden in issuing a joint statement saying the three partner countries would “commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen co-operation on defence innovation”.

“These initiatives will add to our existing efforts to deepen cooperation on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”

The Aukus deal was initially signed in September 2021 to concentrate on nuclear submarine development with a wary eye on potential Chinese aggression in the Pacific, but focus has now shifted towards the threat posed by Russia in the wake of its invasion.

“In light of Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified, and unlawful invasion of Ukraine, we reiterated our unwavering commitment to an international system that respects human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion,” the leaders said.

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