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The Hypersonic Challenge

The Hypersonic Challenge

Russian MiG-31 armed with the Kinzhal missile. Kinzhal Hypersonic missiles were once thought to be almost impossible to intercept.

New strategies to attack Ukraine’s military and civilian population has run the gambit of using the most advanced Kalibr cruise missiles, low tech drones imported from outside or Russia, Cold War ballistic missiles, and Hypersonic weapons like the Kinzhal missile. While different older and modern systems are being used to counter the attacks, the theory many had inside and outside of Russia was that the Hypersonic Kinzhal missiles would not be intercepted by any defense system available.

In the earlier stages of the war, it was the case that a Kinzhal missile hit a target in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk while Russia used electronic countermeasures to knock out much of Ukraine’s missile defense tracking capabilities. More recently however, several Kinzhal missiles were intercepted by what was likely a Patriot PAC-3 missile system, a system designed with smaller, more agile missiles specifically meant to intercept ballistic targets.

While many were surprised that the air launched Kinzhal missiles were shot down, it is not an illogical conclusion to assume a Patriot PAC-3 missile system can knock out a Kinzhal. The Kinzhal is heavily based on the ground launched missile system carried by Russia’s Iskander surface-to-surface missile system, also being used in Ukraine by Russia. While the various Iskander types can fire cruise missiles like Kalibr or fast ballistic missiles like a variant of the Kinzhal, NATO designs were created specifically to kill Kinzhal type missiles. The theory that added speed and altitude in launching a Kinzhal from a MiG-31 fighter was certainly sound, and defined the Kinzhal as being Hypersonic. While it can reach Hypersonic speeds using this technique, it does not make the Kinzhal much different than its Iskander based ancestor. In the end, the real life test of Kinzhal lead to several interceptions, with the loss of six of them in one day.

Some peculiar situations have come from the missile war in Ukraine. In a technique not seen since North Korea altered SA-2 missiles to hit ground targets during the early Cold War, Russian S-300 missiles were also adjusted to hit targets on the ground, despite it being designed solely as an air-to-air missile. While this might be a sign that more advanced missiles are running low for Russia, it is the case that NATO supplied advanced missiles are also running low, with a great deal of time needed to replenish their stocks.

Using simple drones may have been a ploy to make Ukraine waste many advanced missiles on $400 drones, and the Kinzhals and other advanced missiles may be being held back for a future attack with a dwindled missile shield. To counter the lack of stock and cost, fairly old Gepard systems were brought in to shoot down simple drones. While effective, there are not enough of them to cover the vastness of Ukraine. If Ukraine can preserve their advanced missile systems to intercept more advanced missile threats only, they can buy more time in keeping their population as safe as possible from attacks from the air.

To cover more regions of Ukraine with Gepard type protection from technically simple threats, three options exist. The first is to try and find more Gepard/Oerlikon based or NATO based systems of a similar type that have cannons linked to a radar and/or tracking system. If this was easy however, it would have likely been done already, which leads to another option. Like many Cold War Soviet equipment being dusted off and used effectively by Ukraine, the ZSU-23-4 was a Cold War system similar to the Gepard, using four 23mm cannons and a tracking system to target low flying threats. If an update of the ZSU-23-4 radar could be implemented, there is likely a tremendous amount of stock and ammo available of the ZSU-23-4 Shilka. Poland had upgraded their systems some time ago, and could act as a blueprint for a quick modernisation. A type of Shilka upgrade or App for the radar could surely save lives by shooting down terror drones purchased by Russia.

The third and last option would be to purchase the PGZ95 system from China. Since 2008, China introduced the PGZ95, but rapidly replaced many of their PGZ95 anti-air vehicles with a similar Oerlikon based system called the PGZ09. While the PGZ09 is very similar to a modern Gepard, the PGZ95s are similar to a modern Shilka, with a modern radar, and have been placed as excess stock by China’s PLA. Sourcing the PGZ95 and placing them at the front would be a simple tactical solution to the drone scourge against innocent Ukrainian civilians. While the politics of such a purchase would be a lot more complicated than the tactical reality, the current image China seeks as a peacemaker abroad, the use of the PGZ95 mainly as a defensive weapon against terror drones, and the perception of impartiality China seeks between Ukraine and Russia may make for a convincing proposal to get modern air defence on the field in Ukraine. If it saves innocent lives, these future approaches are worth a shot.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration