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Did the Invincible Kinzhal Outsmart the Mighty Patriot?

Abhyuday Saraswat

13 June 2023

The Russia-Ukraine war has been fought as much on the ground, air and sea, as it has been in the minds of the global populace. Both sides have made concerted efforts from Day 0 to win the information war, with claims and counterclaims ruling the roost. A recent campaign has pitted Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missile against US-made and Ukraine-operated Patriot missile defence systems. Did Patriot stop the Kinzhal in its tracks or did it meet its match at the hands of Russia’s ‘invincible’ weapon?


The Russian Defence Ministry, as per a statement released on Telegram, claimed to have destroyed five American-made Patriot surface-to-air missile defense systems during a nocturnal strike on 16 May 2023. The Russian military purportedly employed its Kinzhal hypersonic missile for this mission and claimed to have “reliably confirmed information” on the strike. However, the veracity of Russia’s claims is disputed by Ukraine, the USA and scores of Western analysts. The counter-narrative runs that if any destruction did occur, it was probably the Patriot landing the punches, stopping the Kinzhal in its tracks.

Which claim is true? The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has been characterised by an array of claims and counterclaims. There are few means available to check the veracity of these claims. But did the invincible Kinzhal really deliver a death blow to the mighty Patriot? How much of the conflicting reports is rumour, propaganda, and information warfare? And how much is the Kinzhal capable of destroying the Patriot system? And if not, then can Patriot defend itself against the Kinzhal? A capability assessment of the two systems may shed some more light.

Kinzhal: Russia’s Hypersonic Dagger

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (472 инaл) – also known as the “Dagger” in Russian and codenamed Killjoy by NATO – is a Russian hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile. It has a purported range of 2,000 km (1,200 mi) and Mach 10 speed. Some sources claim that it can reach speeds as high as Mach 13. Kinzhal is reported have a high manoeuvrability capability during its flight. The missile is believed to be capable of employing sharp evasive manoeuvres to evade enemy air defence systems. Its ability to change direction and altitude rapidly makes it a challenging target for interception. It may be fired by Tu-22M3 bombers or MiG-31K interceptors and can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. It has been stationed in air stations in Russia's Southern and Western military districts.

The Kinzhal entered service in December 2017 and was one of five new Russian strategic weapons disclosed in March 2018 by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The main architecture of the missile is similar to the previous ground-launched 9K720 Iskander missile. But it has been modified for air launch using improved aerodynamics and an advanced guidance unit for greater manoeuvrability. It can reportedly hit both static targets and mobile ones, such as aircraft carriers. Touted as having both anti-ship and land-attack capabilities, the Kinzhal can be employed against naval vessels as well as ground-based targets such as command centres, airfields, and infrastructure.

Russia is reported to have conducted multiple tests of the Kinzhal system and has claimed successful results. However, the exact verification of the missile’s performance parameters is rendered difficult due to the lack of publicly available data. At the same time, a high degree of manoeuvrability and speed is expected to make its interception difficult. Even superior missile defence systems may find it difficult to defend their territory and bases against an incoming Kinzhal missile.

Patriot: The West’s Shield

Patriot stands for Phased Array Tracking Radar for Intercept on Target. The Patriot missile defence system is a ground-based, mobile missile defence interceptor deployed by the United States of America and many other nations. The Patriot system detects, tracks, and engages unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, and short-range or tactical ballistic missiles.It is produced by Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and is used by the USA and 18 countries, including Ukraine and Saudi Arabia. The supply of the Patriot system to Ukraine is intended as a key means to bolster Kyiv’s air defence capabilities against Russia’s growing aerial assaults. The Patriot battery was delivered to Ukraine in April 2023 by the USA, Germany and the Netherlands.

The system consists of six central components: the Patriot missiles, a radar set, an engagement control station, missile launchers, a vehicle-mounted power generator unit, and a high-frequency antenna mast. The system’s radar has a range of over 150 kilometres. The strike range of a Patriot missile varies depending on the type of interceptor used. The PAC-2 (Patriot Advanced Capability-2)interceptor has a range of about 70 kilometres, while the newer PAC-3 missile has a range of about 40 kilometres. The PAC-2 and PAC-3 also vary in terms of warhead design. The PAC-2 interceptor has a blast-fragmentation warhead, but the newer PAC-3 missile employs more sophisticated hit-to-kill technology. The Patriot system operates in a multi-layered integrated defence approach, using multiple missiles to engage and intercept threats at different ranges and altitudes.

The Patriot system has been extensively used by the United States and its allies for air defense purposes. It has seen deployment in various conflicts and operations, including the Gulf War (1990-91) and the Iraq War (2003). More recently, the system has played an important role in defending Saudi Arabia against missile attacks from Yemen.

Can the Dagger pierce the Shield?

There are conflicting reports on whether a Kinzhal hypersonic missile can destroy a Patriot missile defence system. Ukraine has countered Russia’s claim of having destroyed five Patriot systems as farcical, instead suggesting that they have successfully repelled Kinzhal missile strikes near Kyiv. Yuri Ihnat, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Air Force statedthat the Patriot anti-aircraft missile system cannot be destroyed in a single blow, even if it is a Kinzhal missile. American authorities thereafter proceeded to confirm the Ukrainian account. U.S. officials termed the damage ‘minimal’ after inspection, while stating that the system is still operational.

In a scenario where the Kinzhal is used against the Patriot system, several factors come into play. The hypersonic speed and potential manoeuvrability of the Kinzhal could pose a challenge to traditional air defence systems like the Patriot. The high speed and unpredictable flight patterns make it more difficult for interceptors to engage and destroy the Kinzhal missile. The Kinzhal system may also incorporate countermeasures to evade interception. These could include advanced manoeuvring, decoys, and electronic warfare techniques to confuse or overwhelm the Patriot system’s radars and interceptors.

On the other hand, there have also been questions raised on the extent of Kinzhal’s speed and manoeuvrability. Critics argue that Kinzhal is nothing more than a modified air-launched ballistic missile. Its ability to travel at hypersonic speeds (above Mach 5) is said to be nothing special as most medium-long range ballistic missiles achieve such speeds in their terminal phase. Although the Kinzhal travels at a Mach 10 speed, its functioning is different from hypersonic glide vehicles or hypersonic cruise missiles – which are generally characterized as hypersonic weapons due to their high degree of manoeuvrability compared to ballistic missiles. In this background, it is possible that the Kinzhal has not really been able to outsmart Western-supplied air defence systems deployed in Ukraine.

The Patriot system on the other hand is a well-established and widely used air defence system. It has a good track record of countering various types of threats, including ballistic missiles. The Patriot employs a combination of radars, command and control systems, and interceptors to engage and destroy incoming threats. While the Kinzhal’s hypersonic speed poses challenges, the Patriot system has been upgraded over the years to improve its capabilities against faster and more advanced threats.

However, doubts have also been raised regarding the Patriot’s success rate. Following the Gulf War (1990-91), the U.S. military boasted of a one hundred percent success rate in intercepting Iraqi Scud missiles. An investigation later found that merely nine percent of engagements had strong evidence of having resulted in a warhead kill. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has also claimed a high success rate with the Patriot system (77 out of 89). However, publicly available information on successful intercepts has been noted to be scant. According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the claimed interception rate may have been intended to reassure the country’s population of the regime’s ability to ward off security threats.

It is challenging to accurately determine how well the Kinzhal might function against the Patriot system. Military capabilities are often assessed through rigorous testing and simulations, with the results tightly guarded by the different governments. But, in reality, it is possible that the Kinzhal was able to hit and inflict heavy damage on the Patriot, and that Ukraine (now effectively a NATO vassal state) and the U.S. might be hiding the fact under the pretence of information warfare.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Abhyuday Saraswat


Abhyuday is pursuing an MA in Defense and Strategic Studies from Bareilly College, M.J.P. Rohilkhand University, Bareilly. His areas of interest include defense affairs, international relations and geopolitics. His writings have appeared at The Kootneeti, The Indian Defence Review ,Defence and Security Alert, Global Strategic and Defense News Analysis and Defence Research and Studies.


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