Russia claims it can produce as many Kinzhal missiles as the military can shoot. Its air force patrols the Black Sea with the missile. And it claims the hypersonic cruise missile can evade any Western air defenses, wreak havoc across the Black Sea and Ukraine, and make NATO suffer for all of its interference.
In reality, the failed vanity weapons might sink some grain ships, but they will likely fail to penetrate any air defenses around high-value targets like Ukrainian power centers or major cities. In fact, the missile was such a failure in its debut that Russia arrested the scientists most responsible for it.
What to know about the Kinzhal missile
The first thing to realize: The hypersonic craze is over hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles. These can, in theory, pass extremely quickly through air defenses while maneuvering, making them essentially impossible to intercept.
The U.S., China, and more seek to create hypersonic missiles, interceptors, glide vehicles, and running shoes. America, on its own, has at least eight major programs tied to hypersonic weapon development. They're notoriously hard to get right. Russia appeared to be in the lead of hypersonic development until the world got an actual look at the actual missile in combat.
What makes a hypersonic missile so valuable relies on two major traits: They fly at five times the speed of sound or greater and can maneuver while doing so.
But the Kinzhal does not appear to actually maneuver. It flies fast, sure, but it flies on a ballistic path. Which means it's really just a ballistic missile. Nearly all ballistic missiles fly at hypersonic speeds. The first ballistic missiles of World War II could fly at nearly Mach 5.
And, importantly, if the missile can't maneuver, like the Kinzhal can't, modern air defenses can likely intercept it.
And, so, the Kinzhal is not actually a hypersonic missile. It's just a run-of-the-mill ballistic missile.
Can the Kinzhal missile be intercepted?
And so it's probably not surprising that Putin threatened the world with the Kinzhal missile and most of us went, "Oh well," and went back to trying to make Kinder Eggs with bathtub wine inside.
Ukraine, obviously, doesn't want a bunch more missiles flying toward it. But the first combat debut of the Kinzhal turned out to be bull, and a later salvo got nearly perfectly intercepted by Ukrainian air defenses.
That was when those Russian scientists were arrested on charges of treason. Lol.
In fact, the Kinzhal missile performance is so bad that some scholars in the space are calling for slowing the hypersonic hype train.
So Russia should feel free to rattle the saber all it wants. Frankly, an actual saber would be about as frightening.