A Kh-47M2 Kinzhal being carried by a Mikoyan MiG-31K interceptor

2023 Hypersonic Missile Update

by Matt Collins

On May 4, 2023, a Russian MiG-31K jet fired a hypersonic missile over the Ukrainian Capital of Kyiv.

Codenamed "Kinzhal”—or “dagger” in English—these hypersonic missiles are being used in increasing numbers in Russia's ongoing invasion. Typically, their extreme speed helps them to evade Ukraine's highly-effective missile defense systems.

Patriot defense systems in Ukraine

Patriot defense systems in Ukraine (Image courtesy of Reuters)

Not this missile, though…

No, this hypersonic missile would be intercepted by a state-of-the-art Patriot defense system provided by the United States. Indeed, Ukrainian Air Force commander Mykola Oleshchuk would later post to Telegram confirming the successful intercept.

That means that Ukraine's new Patriot system, operated by a ninety-man crew trained at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, might have just claimed the first kill against a hypersonic target.

But this is more than just a cat-and-mouse game at ten times the speed of sound. A hypersonic missile, after all, could also carry strategic payloads—including everything from nerve agents to nuclear weapons—which could target cities, bases, or hardened sites in an all-out attack.

As these weapons are developed and refined, the hypersonic missile is becoming a larger and more significant part of the equation … yet most Americans know little (if anything) about them. Today, we're going to fix that.

As such, this condensed guide covers everything you'll need to know about hypersonic missiles—from their history and development to the current arsenal for world powers. Finally, we’ll review the three pieces of PPE that could potentially save your life in the event of a hypersonic missile attack.

Let's get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Unleashing the Advantage of Hypersonic Speed

  • 02

    A Brief History of Hypersonic Missile Development

  • 03

    The World's Hypersonic Arsenal in 2023

  • 014

    The Proving Grounds of Ukraine

  • 05

    Hypersonic Survival Gear

  • 06

    New Rules of Engagement

  • 07

    Frequently Asked Questions About Hypersonic Missiles:

Unleashing the Advantage of Hypersonic Speed

The hypersonic missile is a quantum leap forward for military technology.

But what exactly does “hypersonic” mean?

Simply put, these missiles travel fast, with the designation “hypersonic” indicating a minimum speed of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). This, of course, gives them unparalleled advantages over conventional systems.

Generally speaking, hypersonic missiles fall into two main categories: cruise missiles and glide vehicles.

The former are propelled by powerful engines, such as scramjets, which rely on the missile's speed to compress incoming air and mix it with fuel for combustion.

Unlike traditional jet engines, scramjets feed supersonic air directly into the compression chamber, using shockwaves to compress and ignite the air-fuel mixture, enabling sustained hypersonic flight. This propulsion system allows the missile to maintain far greater speeds over long distances.

Scramjet infographic

Scramjets use supersonic airflow for greater speed (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Hypersonic glide vehicles, or HGVs, function a bit differently, as they are propelled by rockets, which boost them into the atmosphere before separating and guiding them towards their target. Much like a space shuttle reentering the Earth's atmosphere, these vehicles rely on their aerodynamic design to generate lift and maintain stable flight.

Additionally, through their utilization of the Earth's gravity and advanced maneuvering capabilities, HGVs can navigate complex flight paths, evading detection and intercepting missile defense systems.

Both types of hypersonic missiles provide a number of advantages over conventional weapons, radically transforming military capabilities and strategic considerations.

But what exactly is it that makes them so revolutionary?

First and foremost, their speed is unmatched.

Able to travel at extraordinary velocities, a hypersonic missile reduces the time between launch and impact to mere minutes. Consequently, the enemy will often be hit before even realizing what's coming. This rapid response capability enhances the effectiveness of preemptive strikes and time-sensitive operations, enabling swift and decisive action on the battlefield.

Take the Russian 3M22 Zircon hypersonic missile, for example. It can reach speeds of Mach 8, making it extremely difficult for existing defense systems to intercept.

Another distinct advantage of hypersonic missiles is their exceptional maneuvering capabilities, which are attributable to their high speeds and aerodynamic designs. Due to these factors, they can rapidly change course, alter altitude, and execute complex maneuvers, making them highly evasive and difficult to track and intercept.

A great example of this is the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, developed by Russia, which can perform sharp evasive maneuvers during its descent phase, rendering interception by traditional defense systems (which were engineered to target ongoing, ballistic threats) nearly impossible.

What’s more, hypersonic missiles have the potential to significantly extend the reach of military operations. This is because their speed allows them to cover vast distances in shorter time frames, providing greater operational flexibility and the ability to strike targets deep within enemy territory.

The Chinese DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle, for instance, has an estimated range of a staggering 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers, enabling it to threaten critical assets almost anywhere in the region in just a few minutes.

This combination of high speed and maneuverability enhances the precision of a hypersonic missile, and allows them to strike targets with exceptional accuracy. This can minimize collateral damage and reduce the risk of unintended casualties.

In this regard, the U.S. Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) stands out. Able to hit targets within a few meters of the intended aim point, it has demonstrated impressive precision strike capabilities.

Finally, the Hypersonic missile poses significant challenges to existing defense systems.

This is because their extreme speeds and unpredictable flight paths make interception difficult, if not impossible, with traditional anti-missile technologies. The development of advanced and innovative defense mechanisms is therefore a matter of great urgency.

Just look at the Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, developed by China. Since this HGV demonstrated the ability to penetrate existing missile defense systems, rivals have raised concerns about the effectiveness of their defensive capabilities.

In sum, hypersonic missiles are propelled by cutting-edge scramjet engines and are distinguished by their unmatched speed. This represents nothing less than a paradigm shift in military technology—perhaps the most significant such shift since the invention of nuclear weapons.

As these weapons continue to evolve, policymakers and military strategists must carefully navigate the complexities of this transformative technology to ensure its responsible use and effective defense against potential threats.

A Brief History of Hypersonic Missile Development

The genesis of hypersonic missile technology can be traced back to the 1940s, when Austrian engineer Eugen Sänger proposed the concept of a "boost-glide" vehicle capable of reaching hypersonic speeds. In this way–with this visionary idea–the rocket scientist laid the framework for rapid evolution in hypersonics.

During the Cold War, advancements in hypersonic technology accelerated amid a tense standoff between the US and Soviet Union, with both sides engaging in ambitious projects. One notable example of this was the US X-15 rocket plane, which made its first flight in 1959. By reaching speeds over Mach 6.7, the plane demonstrated hypersonic capabilities.

Needless to say, this marked a significant milestone and paved the way for further exploration.

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 rocket plane

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 rocket plane (Image courtesy of Space.com)

As the twenty-first century dawned, hypersonic missile research gained renewed attention from global powers. Various countries started investing in this field, recognizing the potential military advantages it could provide.

The Russian hypersonic missile was one of the first to appear. Emerging as a frontrunner in hypersonic technology, it found success in several tests in the early 2000s. Consequently, in 2004, Russia unveiled the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, capable of traveling at Mach 8. With its impressive speed and maneuverability, the Zircon posed a new challenge to existing defense systems, underscoring the need for countermeasures.

China, too, made remarkable progress in the hypersonic realm. In 2014, the country conducted a test flight of the Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, traveling at Mach 10. Unsurprisingly, advancements in China's hypersonic missile development sparked concerns among the country’s rivals, as the technology posed a potential threat to regional security and stability.

China’s hypersonic Wu-14

China’s hypersonic Wu-14 (Image courtesy of China-Arms)

On the whole, hypersonic missile research has become a global pursuit, with multiple nations investing in their development. Australia, India, and France, for example, have joined the race, recognizing the strategic significance of these weapons.

Alongside this arms race, the rapid advancement of hypersonic missiles has raised concerns about the destabilizing effect on global security.

After all, traditional defense systems–designed to counter slower ballistic missiles–struggle to intercept hypersonic threats due to their extreme speeds and unpredictable flight paths. This has prompted nations to explore innovative defensive solutions, such as directed-energy weapons and advanced tracking systems.

The military implications of the hypersonic missile are, as a result, far-reaching.

Indeed, their ability to strike targets with unprecedented speed and accuracy can potentially reshape the dynamics of warfare, enabling swift response, precision strikes, and enhanced deterrence. However, the risk of hypersonic technology falling into the wrong hands remains more than a little daunting.

The history of the hypersonic missile illustrates this cutting-edge technology's rapid progression and global significance. From early experiments to recent breakthroughs, nations have recognized the game-changing potential of hypersonic speed.

As the race for hypersonic supremacy continues, military strategists and policymakers must grapple with the challenges and opportunities these weapons present, ensuring responsible development and effective defense mechanisms in an ever-evolving global security landscape.

The World's Hypersonic Arsenal in 2023

As of 2023, only three nations have hypersonic missiles in their arsenal.

The first is China, which has demonstrated remarkable achievements in hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles. On this basis, it has established itself as a formidable player in the field.

For evidence of this Chinese prowess, look no further than the DF-17, a hypersonic glide vehicle unveiled in 2017. Boasting the ability to fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, the DF-17 is boosted into the atmosphere by a rocket before separating and gliding at hypersonic speeds toward its target. With an estimated range of 1,800 to 2,500 kilometers, the DF-17 poses a considerable threat to regional security, capable of targeting critical assets within its operational range.

Simply put: if China fires this hypersonic missile, all of Asia will be on notice.

Additionally, China has been actively developing the DF-ZF, a hypersonic glide vehicle designed to be launched from strategic bombers. This HGV aims to enhance China's long-range strike capabilities and provide increased flexibility in delivering hypersonic attacks.

Unsurprisingly, Russia’s hypersonic missile development is also ahead of the curve. Emerging as a pioneer in hypersonic technology, the country has showcased significant achievements in developing and deploying hypersonic missiles. This is particularly true of their hypersonic glide vehicles, which feature unparalleled maneuverability and speed.

In this regard, the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle is a prime example. Reaching speeds of Mach 27, it renders interception nearly impossible for existing missile defense systems. Thus, the Avangard's ability to perform sharp evasive maneuvers during its descent phase presents a significant challenge to traditional defense mechanisms, bolstering Russia's strategic deterrence capabilities.

Russia’s Mach 27 Avangard Hypersonic Missile

Russia’s Mach 27 Avangard Hypersonic Missile (Image courtesy of Xinhuanet )

What’s more, Russia has developed the aforementioned 3M22 Zircon hypersonic missile, which utilizes scramjet propulsion technology.

Traveling at Mach 8 speed, the Zircon poses a formidable threat due to its high velocity and maneuverability. Indeed, its exceptional speed makes it extremely challenging for conventional defenses to intercept, enhancing Russia's ability to project power and potentially tip the balance in regional conflicts.

Last but not least, the United States has also pursued hypersonic weapons to maintain its technological edge in military capabilities. While the country has faced some technical challenges, it has made notable progress in developing and testing hypersonic systems.

One significant project is the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), initiated by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The HTV-2 is a hypersonic glide vehicle that flies at speeds exceeding Mach 20. Although the program encountered technical difficulties during test flights, it provided valuable data and insights for future development.

In addition, the United States has been investing in developing the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). The ARRW is an air-launched hypersonic boost-glide missile designed to be carried by strategic bombers. Allowing for rapid response and precision strikes against time-sensitive targets, it aims to enhance the country's conventional prompt global strike capabilities.

The Proving Grounds of Ukraine

In a certain light, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created the perfect proving ground for the next generation of weapons—both Russian and Western.

Indeed, over the last year, we’ve seen the deployment of everything from the highly-successful FGM-148 Javelin missile to loitering munitions like the Aerotronix Switchblade drone. Some of these systems instantly proved their effectiveness in battle—while the hardship of warfare exposed the shortcomings of other new systems.

Russia’s new KH-47 Kinzhal hypersonic missile is one of those new weapons systems. First unveiled in 2018, it’s been called “uniquely capable” by Russian media. Purported to reach Mach 5, with a range of 930 miles, this is the air-launched hypersonic missile that was shot down by new American Patriot defense systems in May of 2023.

Russia’s air-launched KH-47 hypersonic missile

Russia’s air-launched KH-47 hypersonic missile (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Notably, West Point’s Modern War Institute evaluated the Kinzhal and identified several key flaws which prevent the missile from posing a truly hypersonic threat. First, they noted that the rocket is designed to burn out its hypersonic motor and then coast the rest of the way to its target. Facing extreme air resistance at hypersonic speeds, the missile will be forced to slow down as it enters the most critical (and most dangerous) final leg of its journey.

Worse still, the Kinzhal clocks in at a whopping 1,000 kilograms, powered by a relatively out-of-date solid rocket motor design that is likely derived from the SS-26 Iskander. For these reasons, plus the aforementioned limited thrust capability in that final leg, the Kh-47 isn’t as maneuverable as one might hope a hypersonic missile to be. Hence why Patriot systems are already intercepting these missiles.

According to the geeks at West Point: “With this technical analysis in mind, it appears the Kinzhal is likely to join the Su-57, T-14 Armata, and BMPT Terminator in the dustbin of vaunted Russian weapons that have severely underperformed on the battlefield.”

And you can add to that equation the outstanding success of these new Patriot Systems in defeating a May 16 saturation raid on Kyiv. Saturation bombing, as the name implies, aims to fill the sky with missiles, UAVs, and other threats to the point that defense systems simply can’t cope—brute forcing threats through a network of otherwise capable defenses. But instead of becoming overwhelmed, Patriot systems have successfully defended the area from most incoming threats. This is in sharp contrast to their spotty performance during the Gulf War, and should cause foreign parties to reevaluate their offensive strategies.

Of course, the hypersonic missile likely won’t always be as shoddily designed and deployed as the Kh-47. But the performance of Patriot and IRIS-T systems demonstrates that they’re not a silver bullet, either.

Hypersonic Survival Gear

On the battlefield, a lightweight hypersonic missile can be used to strike targets with unparalleled speed and precision. In this way, they can potentially provide a major tactical advantage, take down supermaneuverable jet fighters, or strike critical enemy strongpoints.

But the real danger with a hypersonic missile comes with their use against strategic targets—for example, in the context of a nuclear or biological attack.

Consider traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Though they can already travel at hypersonic speeds, they’re launched vertically, up to the edge of the atmosphere, before plunging back to Earth on a ballistic trajectory. This makes them far easier to track and potentially shoot down.

Hypersonic missiles, meanwhile, can reach their targets in slightly less time and at far lower altitudes. And as we’ve already discussed, they could be maneuverable enough to outfox traditional missile defense systems.

As a result, you will need immediate protection from threats that might exist in your immediate area. And you’ll need gear that can help protect you from a wide range of potential threats—even though you may not know exactly which threats you’re dealing with.

That’s why we recommend a full-face respirator like the CM-6M gas mask. It has a wide panoramic visor, tough butyl rubber construction, along with professional-grade engineering and features you’ll need to survive the worst day of your life.

The CM-6M mask in action

The CM-6M mask in action

Note that this is the same gas mask that’s trusted by our law enforcement partners around the globe, members of the US Department of Defense, and even the South African Ministry of Interior. And it’s compatible with all MIRA Safety accessories, so you can upgrade with a gas mask microphone or a spectacle kit in a matter of minutes.

To go with that mask, you’ll need an NBC-77 SOF gas mask filter, which will protect you from the full range of CBRN threats. It doesn’t matter whether you’re dealing with nerve agents, nuclear fallout, or the next pandemic—this filter will get you to safety. It’s also got an impressive twenty-year shelf life—so it will last roughly three times as long as the typical gas mask filter.

The NBC-77 SOF gas mask filter

The NBC-77 SOF gas mask filter

We also recommend having a HAZ-SUIT on hand for full-body protection. It’s impermeable, reusable, and available in a variety of different sizes to fit each member of the family. Combined with a respirator, filter, gloves, boots, and chemtape, and you’ll have full-body protection from any kind of threat that a hypersonic missile can deliver.



New Rules of Engagement

The creation of a battlefield-ready hypersonic missile has unleashed a whole new arms race unlike anything we’ve seen since the dawn of the nuclear age.

Without a doubt, these new weapons are powerful force multipliers—capable of delivering payloads faster and more discreetly than any other type of missile yet conceived. For these reasons, the threat that they pose is very real, as evidenced by the United States’ rapid development and deployment of defenses like the Patriot System in order to fight back.

Indeed, the telling closing words of West Point’s article on the Kh-47 kill are that “the United States and its allies could just as quickly lose their edge in the missile defense sphere.”

So it’s important that we keep an eye on these powerful new weapons systems, understand their impressive capabilities, and take steps personally to prepare for a potential attack with hypersonic missiles in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hypersonic Missiles:

What is a hypersonic missile?
How fast is a hypersonic missile?
How fast is Russia’s hypersonic missile?
Which country has a hypersonic missile?
Can hypersonic missiles be shot down?
Are hypersonic missiles really a threat?