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Eastern Europe and Central Asia , Missile and Space

Russia’s Lethal New Kinzhal ‘Carrier Killer’ Hypersonic Missile Set to Bring Renewed Foreign Interest in MiG-31 and Tu-22M as Launch Platforms for Maritime Strike Roles

August 03rd - 2018

A number of reports have indicated that the armed forces of both China and India have shown considerable interest in acquiring the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missile from Russia - a weapon which entered service in the Russian armed forces in March 2018. The highly versatile weapons system reportedly has a range of at least 2000km, with some estimates putting it as high as 3000km, and can deploy both nuclear and conventional warheads for tactical strikes. The missile’s advanced manoeuvring capabilities, high precision and hypersonic speed have however made it stand out in particular as a ship killer - somewhat prematurely gaining it the name ”˜carrier killer’ due to its ability to disable and possibly even sink a 100,000 ton supercarriers with a single strike.

The Kinzhal is a potent and highly asymmetric game changer at sea, one which is set to make Russia a major power in the Pacific theatre despite its lack of a large surface navy by allowing aircraft based in its Far East to threaten hostile ships across the East China Sea and much of South East Asia. It was predicted when the Kinzhal was revealed as a potential carrier killer that Russia would not only leverage this asset in East Asia - but also that its close defence partner China would attempt to acquire the missile directly, if not purchase its technologies for its own air launched ballistic missile program, to seriously strengthen its position in the Pacific. With the Kinzhal striking targets at Mach 5 - possibly much higher according to some estimates - this will combined with its high manoeuvrability ensure that hostile warships including the U.S. Navy’s carrier strike groups, by admission of the U.S. Naval Institute, would be effectively defenceless. This would extent not only to China’s coastal waters - but well beyond - particularly if the new missile were paired with a long ranged launch aircraft.

While the Kinzhal is highly capable, and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has previously been seen testing the hypersonic platform or what may be a close domestic derivative, the country’s armed forces notably lack a capable launch platform comparable to those used by Russia. The Russian military currently deploys the Kinzhal from both its MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors and its Tu-22M3 strike bombers - both of which are better suited to operating the missile than China’s own heavy aircraft. The MiG-31 in particular, with its speeds approaching Mach 3 making the fastest flying modern combat aircraft in the world, as well as its long range and extreme operating altitude of almost 21km, is an ideal launch platform which can impart considerable kinetic energy to the Kinzhal upon firing while remaining near invulnerable to retaliation in return. The Tu-22M3, with flying significantly lower at little over 13km, does retain a longer range and a speed approaching Mach 2 - and perhaps most importantly can carry multiple missiles simultaneously. China’s subsonic H-6 by contrast flies very low for a modern combat aircraft and remains highly vulnerable to interception at extreme ranges due to its low speed and manoeuvrability - while imparting far less energy to the hyepronsic missile. China’s JH-7 strike fighter too, limited by its lower payload to carrying a single missile, is considerably inferior to the MiG-31 as a launch platform.

With the PLA set to acquire the Kinzhal in the near future, possibly by the end of 2018, the country may well seek to acquire a launch aircraft from Russia to pair with the new ship killer and further strengthen its anti access area denial (A2AD) capabilities at sea. While the Tu-22M3 and the MiG-31 are both potential candidates, the Foxhound in particular provides capabilities well beyond those of any existing aircraft serving in the Chinese fleet and perhaps the most dangerous launch platform for the missile. While originally designed as a highly specialised air defence aircraft for the Soviet Air Defence Force and Soviet Air Force, the modified strike variant of the MiG-31 is, if acquired, likely to serve with the PLA Navy rather than the Air Force due to its specialisation as a maritime strike platform. China may well not be alone in seeking heavily modernised variants of Soviet era aircraft to pair with the new hypersonic ship killer and provide an asymmetric advantage at sea. India for its part, perceiving a growing threat from the vast and growing naval capabilities of its eastern neighbour, has itself shown considerable interest in acquiring the Tu-22M3 for a long range maritime strike role. While reports regarding Indian interest in the Tu-22M3 initially speculated that the strike bombers were slated to carry anti ship variants of the Brahmos cruise missile, the induction of the Kinzhal and pairing of the new hypersonic platform with the bomber is a more likely cause for Delhi’s sudden spike in interest for the Soviet era strike bomber.

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