Russia's Kinzhals are frustrating Chinese analysts who want to find out how Beijing's hypersonic missiles might stack up against US battlefield defenses

  • China has been watching the Kinzhal closely to see how it stacks up against US systems in Ukraine.

  • Beijing hopes that its own hypersonic missiles will give it an edge over the US in a potential war.

  • But some defense analysts in China are questioning Russia's performance with the missile.

Modern militaries have been looking to the war in Ukraine as a proving ground for advanced weapons. But observers in China hoping to study Russia's use of hypersonic missiles — one of the most-hyped tools in Beijing's own arsenal — are signaling they won't learn much from Moscow.

Chinese defense magazines have, in the past year, been reporting on the Russian Kinzhal with great interest, analyzing its performance against US-provided Patriot systems and in the war in general.

And for a good reason: The Kinzhal's appearance in Ukraine is Beijing's first opportunity to observe how such sophisticated weapons fare in battle against Western equipment.

China hopes its own hypersonic missile, the Dongfeng, will be game-changing in its capacity to take down US aircraft carriers.

But the Kinzhal, touted by the Kremlin as an "unstoppable" hypersonic weapon, is being reported by the West to have been thwarted by Patriot systems or to have simply missed its targets.

A Ukrainian sapper recovers the warhead of a Kinzhal missile.
A Ukrainian sapper recovers the warhead of a Kinzhal missile.State Emergency Service of Ukraine

"There is more and more evidence showing that what the US and Ukraine say on this matter is true," the Chinese defense analyst Yin Jie wrote in November in the Shaanxi military magazine Ordnance Industry Science and Technology.

While such journals don't necessarily reflect views or intel from within the People's Liberation Army, state agencies must approve their publishers.

Despite this, Yin issued a surprisingly critical review of how Russia uses the Kinzhal, otherwise known as the "Dagger," writing that the missile was "unlikely to have a significant impact" on the battlefield.

That directly contradicts how Russia, a close ally of China, has portrayed the weapon as a pivotal munition for victory.

A 'short-term, hasty project'

The Chinese analyst spelled out various ways Russia had undermined its own missile, such as how the Kinzhal had been fired and its availability. The Kinzhal, they concluded, just wasn't the star that Moscow made it out to be.

Yin described the Kinzhal as an evolution of Russia's ground-launched Iskander missile that was rapidly completed in a "short-term, hasty project that was forced to be launched" as Western rivals put pressure on Moscow in the years before the war.

A Russian Iskander-E missile launcher is on display at the International Military Technical Forum 'Army 2022' on August 17, 2022 in Patriot Park, outside of Moscow, Russia.
A Russian Iskander-E missile launcher on display at the International Military-Technical Forum "Army 2022" in Patriot Park, outside Moscow, in August 2022.Contributor/Getty Images

"This missile, which was developed based on the technical framework of the 1980s, may not have any amazing battlefield performance," the analyst added.

The Kinzhal's maneuverability, they wrote, "cannot be compared with that of a real hypersonic missile," adding that its ballistic trajectory also made the Kinzhal susceptible to defense systems such as the Patriot.

A similar view can be found in "Showdown between the Dagger and the Patriot in Ukraine," an analysis published by the prominent Beijing defense and science journal Military Arms.

The Kinzhal, this separate analysis said, was at best a "marginal hypersonic missile."

"Although Russia calls the 'Dagger' a hypersonic missile, analysts from other countries generally believe that the so-called hypersonic 'Dagger' missile is actually an air-launched version of the 'Iskander' short-range tactical ballistic missile," it said.

That assessment aligns with what Western experts have said about the Kinzhal — that it's not a "true" hypersonic missile in that it can reach hypersonic velocity but can't glide and maneuver effectively at such speeds.

"The 'Dagger' missile has more than enough ambition but not enough power," the July analysis said.

'The accuracy is unsatisfactory'

In his November analysis, Yin blamed more than just a lack of sophistication in the Kinzhal, pointing to circumstances in the Russian military apparatus as a whole.

Yin noted that Russia had stopped launching Kinzhals from its Mig-31s, choosing to instead use Su-34 jets firing safely from outside the range of Ukraine's defenses.

But the analyst wrote that the Su-34 was proving too sluggish to fire the Kinzhal at an optimal speed. Already slower than the Mig-31, the Su-34 was further weighed down by the heavy Kinzhal, Yin assessed.

Russian servicemen repair a Su-34 at an airbase in Syria.
Russian servicemen repairing a Su-34 at an airbase in Syria.VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP via Getty Images

For the Kinzhal to be most efficient, the launch aircraft has to move at high speeds and altitudes to give the missile a proper range boost.

"Therefore, after the aircraft is equipped with the KH-47M2 'Dagger,' excessive and unrealistic expectations cannot be placed on its initial capabilities," the author wrote.

They also criticized Russia's satellite system for guiding the missiles, saying it didn't have enough satellites for precision.

"The accuracy is unsatisfactory," the analyst wrote.

Yin then raised the issue of Russia simply not having enough Kinzhals, saying Western sanctions had hobbled Moscow's capacity to quickly manufacture the weapons, which limited how the missiles could be used.

"The 'Dagger' was not produced and equipped in large quantities. After a year and a half of expenditure, there may be very few left in the inventory," they added. "It can only be used to attack strategic locations."

This mirrors findings in December from the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, DC, think tank, which cited Ukrainian intelligence saying Russia produced only four Kinzhals in a month.

"I think clearly a lesson for China here is that they need massive inventories of weapons," Lyle Goldstein, the director of Asia engagement at the Washington, DC, think tank Defense Priorities, told Business Insider. "More than what they consider the military requirement."

He and the RAND policy analyst Nathan Waechter have documented China's study of weapons in the Ukraine war via an article series published by The Diplomat. Their work includes an analysis of Yin's critique of the Kinzhal.

China watches the Ukraine war closely

Goldstein said he and Waechter had been tracking dozens of Chinese articles analyzing the Kinzhal, which indicated Beijing was deeply interested in its performance.

"It adds to evidence that China's watching this war extremely carefully," he said.

Goldstein said that Russia had, in recent months, intensified attacks using the Kinzhal and that Western observers would have to wait to see what Chinese experts thought of these.

Military vehicles carrying DongFeng-17 missiles at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019.
Military vehicles carrying Dongfeng-17 missiles at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in October 2019.GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

But Goldstein said that if Chinese media was picking up on any hurdles that Moscow had faced with Western weaponry, Beijing's military was probably scrutinizing them as well, given China's close and dominant ties with Russia.

What had been printed in Chinese defense magazines, he added, was only a hint of the true scope of Beijing's analysis and the lessons it was gleaning for a potential war with the US.

"I've always held that we're just looking at the tip of the iceberg," Goldstein said.

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