What are hypersonic missiles and how do they work?


Russia have unleashed a new wave of air strikes across Ukraine, killing at least six people and knocking out power, including to the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station.

Ukraine’s military said Russia fired 81 missiles and eight drones in attacks mainly targeting energy infrastructure, and that the weapons used included six hypersonic Kinzhal missiles which Ukraine cannot intercept.

The attacks were mainly on energy facilities and hit more than half a dozen regions, striking the capital Kyiv, the Black Sea port of Odesa and the second-largest city Kharkiv.

Ukraine’s military said air defences knocked out at least 34 missiles and four Shahed suicide drones, but regional officials said five people were killed in the western region of Lviv and one in southeastern Dnipropetrovsk in southeastern Ukraine.

“This was a major attack and for the first time with so many different types of missiles…The enemy launched six Kinzhals,” air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat said. “It was like never before.”

What are hypersonic missiles?

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.

In April 2022 Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden issued a joint statement saying their 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 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 Vladimir Putin after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

Russia’s defence ministry has already said its forces have fired hypersonic ballistic missiles in 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.

Hypersonic missiles, like the Kinzhal (Dagger) rockets allegedly being deployed by the Russian Air Force, are thought to represent the next generation of arms because they can travel at exceptionally high velocities – up to ten times the speed of sound, which is around 8,000mph.

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.

Mr 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 US and China are said to be working on their own versions, 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.

Ukraine War 24

Ukraine War 24

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