Among many firsts, Russia's invasion of Ukraine witnessed the first use of hypersonic weapons on the battlefield. Russia has employed the air launched Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile, also referred to as the “Dagger,” to strike targets in Ukraine on many occasions.
Hypersonic missiles travel at high speeds of Mach 5 or greater, fly at lower altitudes, and are maneuverable; they are thus considered to be difficult for current air defense systems to intercept. While the United States is still working to develop its own hypersonic weapon, China has already developed and deployed ground-, air- and sea-launched hypersonic variants.
As the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has yet to use these weapons in combat, Chinese analysts are likely keen to absorb lessons from Russia's war in Ukraine. This piece will review an article from a leading Chinese defense magazine entitled: “The Dagger Wielding Platypus: A Brief Discussion of the Su-34 Launching the Dagger Hypersonic Missile.” While the Kinzhal was initially launched from Mig-31 fighter jets, Russia has recently outfitted the Su-34 “Platypus” (referred to in the West as the “Fullback”) with the ability to carry and launch the Kinzhal as well. This Chinese analysis discusses both the development of the Su-34 as a Kinzhal carrier and the actual performance of the Kinzhal in combat.
The first question the piece attempts to answer is why the Russians have equipped the Su-34 to launch Kinzhal missiles. The author notes that after the war broke out, “within the first 12 months, the number of complete irreparable losses of Su-34 aircraft admitted by the Russian Ministry of Defense alone exceeded 20… For the Su-34 fleet, with a total of only 121 aircraft, such a huge loss is shocking.”
During December 2023 there were reports of new losses to this aircraft. This Chinese analysis identifies two reasons for these heavy losses. The first is doctrinal: “The Russian Aerospace Force, which inherited the air combat theories of the Soviet Air Force, habitually allows existing combat aircraft to take on the tasks of both air defense suppression and electronic warfare.”
The second reason for the heavy losses is seen as connected to Russia's poor economy and the Russian military's underinvestment in precision guided stand-off munitions. The author assesses that “most of the time the Su-34 only carries old-fashioned, high-resistance, unguided free-falling aerial bombs commonly known as 'iron bombs.' This put these aircraft at risk to Ukrainian anti-aircraft fire while they carried out extremely dangerous bombing missions. Thus, it is not surprising that the Platypus was frequently killed by its opponents.”
The analysis cites these reasons to explain why the Russian Aerospace Force has switched the Kinzhal mission to the Su-34. This change has given this Su-34 the ability to carry out strikes more safely outside the range of Ukrainian air defenses. However, with respect to this new Kinzhal carrying platform, the Chinese defense analyst says, “This capability should not be exaggerated either.”
Looking at the broader impact of hypersonic weapons on the war, this Chinese analysis concludes: “Both Russia and Ukraine are showing signs of fatigue. The effects of the West's comprehensive blockade and sanctions against Russia are gradually emerging.” The protracted length of the war is viewed as having an impact on Russia's use of the Kinzhal in combat. “The 'Dagger' was not produced and equipped in large quantities. After a year and a half of expenditure, there may be very few left in the inventory.”
Thus, this Chinese analyst, despite Russian claims to the contrary, does not view the Kinzhal hypersonic weapon as a wonder weapon that can shift the course of the war more broadly. Moreover, “it is difficult for the Platypus to launch [enough] Kinzhals to achieve effects at scale.”
Despite Russian claims to the contrary, a Chinese analyst does not view the Kinzhal hypersonic weapon as a wonder weapon that can shift the course of the war.Share on Twitter
This analysis of the Kinzhal also takes issue with the weapon itself. Multiple problems are identified. The Kinzhal is criticized in this Chinese assessment as outdated 1980s Cold War technology that is not genuinely hypersonic in nature. Due to features of the Kinzhal's design, “its ability to perform long-distance gliding in the atmosphere falls short.” Analyzing its maneuverability, the Chinese analyst observes, “The degree to which it can change its ballistic trajectory cannot be compared with that of a real hypersonic missile, and it seriously lacks the ability to maneuver laterally.”
The author concludes that the Kinzhal's shortcomings make it vulnerable. “Most of its ballistic trajectory is pinched off at the junction of the stratosphere and the mesosphere at 50 kilometers. Therefore, in theory, it can still be intercepted by advanced anti-missile systems currently in service.”
While the Su-34 is a much newer airframe than the Mig-31, it is also not viewed as an ideal carrier for the Kinzhal. “As an air-launched ballistic missile, the … Kinzhal requires the carrier aircraft to release the missile at high altitude and high speed in order to give the missile as much initial boost as possible to reduce fuel consumption and increase its range.” However, the author notes that the Su-34 is both slower than the Mig-31 and is weighed down by the heavy Kinzhal, which also reduces the fighter-bomber's performance characteristics.
This Chinese analysis notes the intrinsic strengths of air-launched hypersonic weapons. “Air-launched ballistic missiles have the advantages of being deployed from flexible launch platforms and non-fixed positions, which can improve ballistic survivability and attack surprise.” However, the analyst asserts that ground-launched ballistic missiles are inherently more accurate. Air-launched hypersonic missiles are “reliant on satellite navigation systems to continuously provide accurate coordinates to the missile-borne computer so that the guidance system can correct route deviations in real time.” The analysis points out that, “Russia's GLONASS satellite navigation system is still in a state of limbo, and the severely insufficient number of satellites in orbit has further reduced navigational accuracy, which was not very high to begin with.” These shortcomings mean that the “accuracy [of the Kinzhal] is unsatisfactory.”
As noted above, one of the strengths of hypersonic weapons is supposed to be their imperviousness to current advanced air defense systems. However, the author observes that “the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced that the Ukrainian Air Force shot down a Kinzhal hypersonic missile using the Patriot PAC-3 air defense missile system on May 4, 2023.” Taking into account Beijing's support for Russia, it is somewhat surprising that this Chinese defense analyst next admits: “There is more and more evidence showing that what the U.S. and Ukraine say on this matter is true.”
In addition to the performance defects of the Kinzhal as identified in the article, the author also concludes that the limited number of Kinzhal missiles in the Russian stockpile and the steady supply of Western intelligence allows Ukraine to defend against these weapons. “The Patriot PAC-3 air defense system … seems quite passive when facing the combination of the Su-34 Platypus and Kinzhal hypersonic missiles; however, the Kinzhal is expensive to build and is not available in large quantities. It can only be used to attack strategic targets.” As the limited number of missiles dictates their use only on strategic, high-value targets, Ukraine has been able to judiciously position and use its Patriot missiles.
The Chinese analyst concludes: “In addition, the West has an overwhelming information technology advantage over Russia, so it is possible to detect and determine the attack intentions of the Platypus' in advance and use integrated [air defense] systems to intercept them.”
This Chinese review of Russia's Kinzhal hypersonic missiles is pessimistic about their ability to have a major impact on the outcome of Russia's war in Ukraine. It is not yet completely clear how this insight will impact China's assessments of their own hypersonic arsenal. Although not discussed in this Chinese analysis, it is worth noting that Western accounts do admit that Kinzhal attacks seem to have damaged Patriot missile batteries on at least two occasions, though it was claimed that the systems remained operational.
Beijing may also calculate that the PLA's hypersonic technology is superior to that of Russia. Taking some of the flaws discussed above, Chinese hypersonic weapons could plausibly have more accurate guidance, as well as trajectories that genuinely skip off the atmosphere, so that they are much more difficult to intercept. Chinese military planners may also conclude that U.S. air defense systems are more capable than expected and then further expand their hypersonic stockpile to ameliorate the problem of limited quantity that Russia has experienced.
It is most certain that Chinese strategists are busy trying to divine any weaknesses in the Patriot system—the very same that is currently defending Taiwan's most high-value targets, including its most crucial radars and command-and-control sites.
Lyle Goldstein is director of Asia Engagement for the Washington think tank Defense Priorities. He is also visiting professor at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs at Brown University. Nathan Waechter is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he lived in China for close to a decade, working in the quantitative market research industry.
This commentary originally appeared on The Diplomat on January 11, 2024. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.