China’s DF-21D “carrier killer” ballistic missile grabbed headlines since entering service in 2010 for its ability to destroy large U.S. warships up to 1,450 kilometers from the country’s coasts. The missile was key to altering the balance of power in the South and East China Seas in Beijing’s favor and vastly expanding the country’s maritime anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone in the face of a growing American naval presence. The United States Navy, by the admission of the U.S. Naval Institute, had no defense against such attacks, and the missile thus limits the United States’ ability to respond to a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait as it did in 1996. While the DF-21D is a unique and highly formidable weapons system, a new weapons system deployed from 2018 is likely to pose a far greater threat to U.S. warships in the Pacific — the Russian military’s new Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile.
The Kinzhal (Dagger) was unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin personally in March 2018 as one of six new hypersonic weapons that would imminently enter service in the Russian armed forces. While other hypersonic platforms such as the the Sarmat and Avangard ICBMS (intercontinental ballistic missiles) were designed solely to fulfill a strategic nuclear delivery role, what makes the Kinzhal stand out is its ability to be used as a tactical strike platform with a non-nuclear warhead — meaning it has battlefield uses for precision strikes against military targets. Though the Kinzhal can deploy a nuclear warhead for a strategic strike role, what makes it truly invaluable is its ability to fulfill a tactical ship hunting role at extreme ranges — arguably better than any other long range missile platform currently in service elsewhere.
The Kinzhal’s warhead is estimated at between 500 and 700 kilograms, a formidable payload though still well below that of China’s DF-21D. What sets the Kinzhal apart, however, and makes it a truly lethal ship hunter, is its combination of precision, range, and hypersonic speed of impact of over Mach 5. Even with no warhead, the kinetic energy of this impact alone is enough to disable if not completely destroy even the largest of warships. Some indication of its power can be gained by examining the Russian-Indian BrahMos anti-ship cruise missile, a platform restricted to speeds of Mach 2.8 and carrying a 250 kg warhead, which was developed to tear large warships ships in half with the sheer force of its high speed impact — and despite lacking hypersonic speeds it was proven able to do so. From this it can be inferred that the Kinzhal, a longer ranged and much faster platform with approximately double the Brahmos’ kinetic energy and more than double the payload, is highly likely to be able to destroy even the largest of enemy warships with a single strike — and does so at distances of up to 2,000 km.
According to Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuriy Borisov, the military has already refurbished ten MiG-31 interceptors to deploy Kinzhal air-to-air missiles since March. The official stated regarding the weapon’s capabilities: “This is a class of precision weapons which has a multifunctional warhead capable of striking at both stationary and moving targets…. (It) takes off into the air, accelerates to a certain speed at a high altitude, and then the missile begins its own autonomous movement.” He emphasized the importance of a high speed of impact to the Kinzhal design, and further stated that the missile was designed to “maneuver during flight, and bypass dangerous zones containing anti aircraft or anti missile defense systems….It is this capability to maneuver in hypersonic flight in particular that makes it possible to ensure (the missile’s) invulnerability and to guarantee target penetration.”
A number of key figures in the United States military have noted following Russia’s unveiling of its new hypersonic missiles that the United States currently has no capabilities with which to intercept attacks at such high speeds, with Strategic Command General John Hyten stating during a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. air defense systems remain wholly incapable of stopping attacks by hypersonic platforms. Indeed, according to a number of reports by U.S. sources, some of the military’s most advanced air defense platforms have recently struggled to intercept even basic attacks from subsonic missiles such as the Scud B, a primitive design which dates back over 50 years. This has serious implications not only for the U.S. mainland in the face of Russia’s new ICBMs, but also for the U.S. Navy which could well see its destroyers and carriers sunk by the new Kinzhal strike platforms at extreme ranges in the event of conflict.
While Russia has little need for long-range anti-ship missiles on its western borders, where maritime distances are relatively confined, deployment of the Kinzhal to the country’s Far East would have significant implications for the balance of power in the Pacific. With the MiG-31 interceptor retaining a combat radius of 1,500 km, the Russian Air Force would be able to target U.S. warships up to 3,500 km away from its coasts. Should combat aircraft deploy from near Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East their strike range would cover the entire East China Sea and much of the South China Sea, as far as the Philippines and including the entire contested maritime region claimed by China and subject to U.S. freedom of navigation patrols. The implications are severe indeed, and could well seriously strengthen Moscow’s position in the Pacific. Should Russia seek to deny the naval assets of United States and its allies access to the South and East China Seas, either to aid Beijing or for its own reasons, it would have a weapon at its disposal more capable of doing so than any currently in Chinese hands. Moscow could leverage this asset to gain considerable influence in the Pacific, which can more than compensate for the relative scarcity of its military assets in the region.
The Kinzhal may yet usurp the title of the Pacific’s prime “carrier killer” and could well facilitate the longstanding Russian and Chinese goal of reducing the Western bloc’s influence and military presence in the Pacific by leaving the U.S. surface fleet effectively defenseless — undermining the unchallenged U.S. naval dominance which has been the bedrock of the regional order since 1945. Moscow is highly likely to leverage this formidable asset to its advantage in future.
Abraham Ait is a military analyst specializing in Asia-Pacific security and the role of air power in modern warfare. He is chief editor of Military Watch Magazine.