On May 6, 2023, the claims of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense about the destruction of a Russian Kinzhal hypersonic missile started circulating on social media. On May 10, Brigadier General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, confirmed it during a briefing with the press about a new security assistance package to reaffirm steadfast U.S. support for Ukraine, which also includes air defense systems and anti-air munitions.
This is the first time a Kinzhal hypersonic missile, which the Russian military boasted as invincible, has been shot down since it was first used in Ukraine. This also appears to be the first recorded use of the MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system by the Ukrainian military since it was delivered. The first of these systems were delivered in April, with the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands sending an unspecified number of Patriot batteries.
According to Ukrainian Air Force Commander Mykola Oleshchuk, who first announced the missile’s destruction on Telegram, the Kinzhal missile was intercepted during an overnight attack on May 4 in the Kyiv region. He also mentioned the missile being launched by a MiG-31K while still flying over Russian territory, far from the border.
When initially asked about the episode, Gen. Ryder was vague, acknowledging that the Patriot was use to shoot down a Russian missile, without providing details about the type of missile intercepted. Here is the extract from the transcript:
Questioner: Ukrainians say they used a Patriot missile to intercept a Russian Kinzhal, or Killjoy, missile. Was the U.S. able to confirm that? And what did you learn from the intercept of what Putin has called an impossible to intercept missile? […]
Gen. Ryder: So first of all, when it comes to Ukraine’s readiness, its inventory or details of missile intercepts, I’d refer you to them. I can confirm that they did down a Russian missile by employing the Patriot missile defense system. […]
When pressed again on the matter later on in the briefing, Gen. Ryder confirmed that indeed the missile shot down was a Kh-47 Kinzhal:
Questioner: I just wanted to double check, you did confirm that a Patriot downed this Kinzhal missile?
Gen. Ryder: Correct.
Questioner: Did I hear that right?
Gen. Ryder: Correct.
Questioner: Was this a U.S.-provided Patriot or one from the Dutch or Germans?
Gen. Ryder: Yeah, in terms of those kinds of operational details, I’d refer you to the Ukrainians.
Questioner: You can’t confirm if the U.S. Patriots are now over there?
Gen. Ryder: The U.S. Patriot is over there.
Questioner: It is? So you’re confirming that …
Gen. Ryder: I’m confirming U.S. Patriot system is in Ukraine, but in terms of which specific battery they employed, whether it was a U.S.-provided, Dutch-provided, I’d refer you to the Ukrainians.
Questioner: Also, I just had a quick follow-up on the Kinzhal. Is this the first time or the first intercept of a hypersonic missile in combat? And do you have the date of the intercept?
Gen. Ryder: I don’t, and again, I’m not going to get into the specifics or trying to characterize it, other than, again, to say we can confirm that the Ukrainians took down this Russian missile with a Patriot missile defense system.
As we have already reported in the past, Kinzhal is basically an air-launched Iskander-M SRBM (short-range ballistic missile) that uses a MiG-31K Foxhound or Tu-22M3 Backfire assets as an air-breathing first stage to increase its range: in fact, it is actually not a “hypersonic weapon” in the sense that it is an air-breathing missile based on scramjet technology and, as a ballistic missile, it flies at hypersonic speed with a reported cruise missile-like flat flight profile.
According to Russians and reference sources, the Kinzhal missile has a range of 1,200 miles (approximately 2,000 kilometers) and a top speed of Mach 10. Moreover, it maintains some ability to maneuver throughout its performance envelope including at hypersonic speed. If accurate, these capabilities could make the Kinzhal difficult to intercept by anti-missile systems.
Kinzhal missiles have already been used on several occasions in Ukraine. The first reported use of the weapon was when Russia said it had fired the missile at a munitions dump in southwestern Ukraine on March 19, 2022. Another more recent reported used was during a massive missile attack launched by Russia at the Ukrainian energy infrastructure and other targets across Ukraine on March 9, 2023.
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