Claims and counter-claims are flying as high as are the hypersonic missiles and the interceptors meant to shoot them down. Both the warring sides, Russia and Ukraine, have been claiming to destroy the prized weapon in the arsenal of the other while claiming theirs to be ‘invincible.’
A former Russian / Soviet fighter pilot has countered the Ukrainian claims and says Kinzhal missiles can demolish the Patriot system provided an element of surprise is maintained.
Russia claimed to have hit the American-supplied Patriots in Kyiv with its “Kinzhal,” aka “Dagger,” on May 15. The Ukrainians initially rejected the claim, but a video did show a battery of Patriot being hit by something.
Later the US officials anonymously confirmed to Reuters that the PAC-3 battery was damaged and could be fixed without removing the system from the deployed sight. New reports claim that the systems have been repaired.
A former Soviet pilot Vladimir Kondaurov said in an interview with NEWS.ru that the Patriot system could be destroyed with a Kinzhal missile if an element of surprise is maintained in terms of the direction of the attack and from what distance the missile is launched.
“Since the range of the Kinzhal is good, we do not need to launch it from the territory of Ukraine. When the MiG-31 with the “Dagger” fly up from some direction, satellites and US intelligence transmit this information.” So an element of surprise is vital, said the pilot.
Fired by MiG-31, the Kinzhal could reach speeds greater than Mach 10 and travel 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers while carrying a conventional or nuclear payload. It was unveiled in 2018 by Vladimir Putin as a ‘super weapon.’
Kinzhal can be maneuvered to the intended target, unlike other hypersonic missiles. That is why they are already near their target when ground-based radar systems spot them. The Kinzhals can be launched from MiG-31K fighter jets, giving it the advantage of being launched from any direction.
“Given the capability of the two systems, if I were to plan an attack. I would not launch Kinzhal at the maximum range. Instead, I would make it follow a path that provides a terminal attack direction with the least probability of pickup, like appearing out of a terrain shadowing. This gives minimum time to early warning systems and hence less reaction time for any system for track and counter-attack,” a veteran IAF fighter pilot who requested anonymity told the EurAsian Times.
Once launched, a missile can be re-vectored only up to a particular stage. However, a planned trajectory or a path is likely pre-fed into the missile. This means that regardless of the mother aircraft’s position, the missile can follow a Non-Line of Sight Target flight path.
He argued that Kinzhal, the air-launched version of the Iskander Surface-to-surface missile, has a curtailed performance in terms of range. Also, the missile is hypersonic, which implies that “it is difficult to track, but not impossible.”
“For an air defense system to track a missile, it comes down to the early warning. It’s difficult to track just with an air defense radar. But if the range and bearing information are shared from another source, like an AWACS (Air Borne Warning and Control System), etc., the system can localize the radar search, and there is a possibility to track,” the pilot added.
IAF pilot maintained that shooting down an incoming missile is not entirely impossible once tracked. “Given the speed of the (Kinzhal) missile, it is challenging. One could employ various means, including missiles or lasers or other small and high-speed projectiles,” the Indian Air Force pilot added.
Since its arrival, the Patriot system has been on the top target list of Russia, and naturally so. And it is expected that future Russian attacks will also aim to destroy the system.
Patriot Vs. Kinzhal – Who Is The Lord Of The Sky?
Dr. Jeffery Lewis, the founding publisher of ArmsControlWonk.com, dismissed any assessment of the capability of either Patriot or Kinzhal based on one engagement. “One hit or miss is just an anecdote,” Dr. Lewis said.
Dr. Lewis agreed that Ukraine’s claim of staving off every missile Russia sent their way is slightly exaggerated. But he also found the Russian claim of Kinzhal being invincible inflated. He noted that the PAC-3 sent to Ukraine is a vast improvement from its predecessor deployed in the Iraq war.
“PAC-3 has some capability against medium-range ballistic missiles with a burnout velocity of 3.5 km/s, which is the high-end estimate of the Kinzhal. So, an intercept is definitely possible,” the military expert commented on Twitter.
He termed the scenario of PAC-3 shooting down every missile as “unlikely, but not impossible.”
The IAF Pilot added: “There is no missile or AD system which gives 100 percent Single Shot Kill Probability (SSKP). So even a perfect plan will have an element or probably of malfunction which does not reflect the credibility of the missile or the AD system, per se.” Factoring in all the available data, it cannot be said which is a better system unambiguously.
“The saving grace has been that it carried a conventional head, not a nuclear payload. On the other hand, the PAC is a very useful acquisition for Ukraine which would deter the Russian onslaught,” the IAF pilot concluded.
Lewis also said that the Patriot doesn’t have to have a 100 percent strike rate to justify investment in them. “I don’t know what the cost-exchange ratio is likely to be, but it is plausible that the cost of destroying the individual elements in a Patriot Battery is a bad trade for Russia. PAC-3 isn’t that expensive.
“You would have to figure out how many Kinzhal missiles (at what cost) it would take to destroy each element in the battery (accounting for the cost of the vehicle plus missiles expended in defending itself). It is not obvious to me that is a good trade for Russia,” Dr. Lewis added.
The Patriot is also the most expensive single weapon system that the US has supplied to Ukraine at a total cost of about US$1.1 billion: US$400 million for the system and US$690 million for the missiles.
“There are other factors to consider: if Patriot becomes a Russian missile magnet, then, in a resource-constrained world, those missiles Russia spends trying to kill Patriot are not targeting Ukrainian military forces or civilian infrastructure. That is good,” Lewis concluded.
Russian Scientists Arrested After Kinzhal’s Debacle?
Close on the heels of the Ukrainian claims of the Kinzhal missiles failing in their endeavors, Russia arrested three Kinzhal developers on treason charges.
Anton Gerashchenko, the Advisor to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, said that “with the Ukrainian air defense shooting down six Kinzhal rockets that Russia marketed as invincible, the search and quick naming of a scapegoat becomes inevitable.”
Two developers, Aleksandr Shiplyuk and Anatoliy Maslov, were arrested in the summer of last year. This April, another developer, Valeriy Zvegnitsev, was placed under house arrest.
Now that Russia has fielded its super weapon against the West’s invincible shield, the experts oversee the duel. However, it will be a while before technological superiority can be assessed between the two weapons.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com