Where they believe every word the Ukrainians utter. I just love the hypothesis for the Patriot being damaged which was apparently due to its own success. The real question is: does Lewis Page have shares in Raytheon?:
American Patriots nailed Putin’s hypersonic Kinzhal missile. The world has changed
Xi Jinping will be annoyed by this as well
17 May 2023 • 2:15pm
There’s much excitement around the world following the events of Monday night, in which Ukrainian air defences armed with US-made weapons reportedly neutralised a heavy Russian missile attack against Kyiv.
In particular the attack apparently included six KH-47M2 Kinzhal (“Dagger”) air-launched missiles, which are often described as “hypersonic”, frequently with the added assertion that there is no defence against such weapons. All six were reportedly stopped by US-made Patriot air defence interceptors, though a Patriot installation was apparently damaged – perhaps by debris from a downed Russian weapon.
Another Kinzhal (referred to by Nato organisations, including the British defence ministry, using the reporting code name “Killjoy”) was also shot down by a Patriot earlier this month. Monday’s interceptions would seem to have confirmed that this was not simply a lucky shot, and the Patriot does indeed offer a strong defence against the Kinzhal and similar weapons.
So, is the world different today? Can any nation in possession of Patriots or similar interceptors rest easy, unworried by the thought of hypersonic weapons – perhaps even, hypersonic nuclear weapons – in enemy hands?
The answer is yes and no: yes, the world is a little different today; and no, even if you have Patriot or similar you are not safe from enemy nukes or true hypersonics.
First let’s take a look at the Kinzhal. It’s really not much more than a modified air-launched version of the ground-launched Iskander short-range ballistic missile, which was developed in the 1980s and 1990s. The Iskander’s rocket propulsion boosts it to speeds of around Mach 6 or 2,000 metres per second. It’s been suggested that the Kinzhal is faster still at Mach 10 or 3,400 m/s.
Hypersonic speed is generally said to begin from Mach 5 upwards so yes, technically these are indeed hypersonic weapons. It’s very difficult to intercept and knock down an object travelling at this kind of speed, so the Patriot has indeed shown itself to be very capable.
However when people in recent times speak of hypersonic weapons they generally mean ones which do not just travel at hypersonic speeds, but which can swerve and jink about while doing so, making themselves still harder to intercept. This class of weapon is often referred to as a “boost-glide” system, as it is often fired atop a booster rocket, possibly out of the atmosphere altogether, before making its manoeuvrable hypersonic descent to the target.
Again, there’s nothing all that new about hypersonic boost-glide. The Nazis had drawing-board plans to use related ideas to bomb the USA during WWII, and various boost-glide projects were set up during the early Cold War. The now-retired Space Shuttle, and subsequent unmanned spaceplanes now in operation by the US and China, are all examples of successful hypersonic boost-glide systems.
Boost-glide for delivering nukes fell out of favour, however, in the mid Cold War with the arrival of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), whose warheads fall into the atmosphere to reach their targets travelling at Mach 20, perhaps 7,000 m/s. This was deemed to be so fast that nothing could possibly stop such a weapon. Once ICBMs began to be put on nuclear powered submarines, meaning that it would be impossible to locate them in order to knock them out in a sudden pre-emptive strike, the balance of terror seemed to be assured. The world could rest safe in the knowledge that no nation would launch a nuclear first strike, as the enemy’s ICBMs would respond and nothing could stop them.
This balance began to be somewhat upset, however, as long ago as the 1980s. The US in particular began making somewhat serious efforts at defence against inbound ICBMs. This had various effects, one of which was to stimulate the Soviets and then the Russians into looking at ways of making their ICBMs harder to stop. In particular they began working to replace the warheads with manoeuvrable hypersonic glide versions which would be harder to intercept.
This work took a very long time due to the financial and political troubles that beset Russia through the 1990s and 2000s, but at last in 2018 Vladimir Putin (at the same time he introduced the Kinzhal and other supposedly “new” Cold War era weapons) announced that the “Avangard” hypersonic glide vehicle was in production and ready to go into service atop Russian ICBMs. Avangards reportedly descend at Mach 20, swerving and jinking as they come, which should mean they can beat any interceptors they might face. China has also carried out work and flight tests aimed at deployment of such weapons.
Another effect of the US missile-defence aspirations of the 1980s and 1990s was to greatly alarm the kind of people who would really like to ban all nuclear weapons but have reluctantly accepted that isn’t going to happen. People like that were very worried that missile-defence would upset the safe balance of terror: they thought that an America with working defences might be tempted to eliminate Russia, or that the prospect of such defences might push Russia into making a first strike while it still could.
Missile defence technology had its first trial as early Patriots were used to defend against Scud ballistic missiles launched by Saddam Hussein in 1991. This led to a massive disagreement about the Patriot’s effectiveness in which then US President George H W Bush claimed it was 97 per cent effective, the US Army claimed rates between 40 and 80 per cent, and the famous anti-missile-defence activist Theodore Postol claimed it had not worked at all.
Postol and members of his school of thought have since then been very effective in limiting how much money and effort the US has put into missile defences, helped by the fact that various missile-defence projects and programmes have indeed been prone to exaggerate the effectiveness of their equipment. Today the US National Missile Defence effort is explicitly limited to defence against the sort of attack that might be mounted by a rogue state such as North Korea: it is specifically forbidden to work on things which might be able to stop Russia’s vast ICBM force, to avoid panicking Vladimir Putin.
This has meant that to be quite honest, Putin doesn’t really need the Avangard or its like: he can blow up America and its allies whenever he wants, as long as he’s willing to accept Russia becoming a lake of molten glass in its turn.
Putin will still be unpleasantly surprised to find, however, that today’s Patriots can knock down Kinzhals. The Kinzhal may not be a true swerving-and-jinking Mach 20 Avangard, but it is Mach 10 and it is claimed to have some manoeuvrability: it would need at least a bit to make precise strikes, of course.
One of the things which might turn the Ukraine war around for Putin would be the ability to suppress Ukrainian air defences, so permitting his powerful air force to dominate Ukrainian skies as it has so far completely failed to do. It now seems clear that even Russia’s best standoff weapons have little chance of achieving this.
And it won’t just be Vladimir finding Monday night’s events upsetting. Taiwan has the Patriot too. It seems likely that Xi Jinping will be setting up a talk with the head of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces to find out just which of his weapons now seem likely to be effective in any future invasion attempt.