Russia claims to have used a hypersonic missile to destroy an underground Ukrainian depot during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, marking the first time Russia has announced the use of these weapons.
Hypersonic missiles are of extremely high concern to military leaders across the globe due to their incredible speed, making them almost impossible to track and defend against.
The announcement was made on Saturday, March 19, in which the Russian news agency Interfax released a statement over the use of their Kinzhal (translates to "Dagger") missile system, a hypersonic missile that was used in experimental form since 2017 but was yet to be officially used in combat.
A video was posted on the Russian Ministry of Defence's Twitter supposedly showing the destruction of the Ukrainian depot by a "high-precision missile strike", likely the same strike that used the Kinzhal missiles.
However, it has not been independently verified whether the hypersonic claims are true.
A hypersonic missile is any missile that travels at over Mach 5 – or five times the speed of sound.
Creating such a rapid weapon poses a unique challenge to engineers, as these speeds generate an intense amount of heat, and changes in airflow make maneuverability extremely low. As a result, while hypersonic missiles are essentially immune to modern defenses, they have often been deemed too expensive to operate in military theatres.
The missiles are carried by either a Tu-22M3 bomber or a MiG-31K interceptor before being launched at a ground target. While in flight, the missile can make evasive maneuvers to avoid air defenses.
Packed inside the missile is a 500 kilogram (1,100 pound) warhead that can either contain high-explosive fragmentation or nuclear payloads, which can penetrate deeper than conventional missiles due to the high speed.
According to Russia, the Kinzhal missile was designed as a response to NATO warships and to target and destroy strategic missile defense systems, likely allowing the use of more conventional and less expensive missiles after the defenses are neutralized. As with much of Russia’s equipment, it is unclear whether the claims are true, but the Kinzhal can supposedly evade all current and planned NATO air defense systems.
Both the US and China are also developing hypersonic missiles, though both remain in experimental phases.
Currently in development are two variations of the hypersonic missile: the hypersonic cruise missile, which uses a jet engine to power it towards the target; and hypersonic glide missiles, which are launched into space and then re-enter the atmosphere, using a glide vehicle that utilizes its own shockwaves to power it above Mach 5. The US claims to field its hypersonic glide missile in 2023.