Future enhancements, including increased operational range, enhanced warhead capabilities, improved evasion of air-defense systems through enhanced maneuvering, and enhanced communication capabilities during simultaneous missile launches, have the potential to significantly amplify the lethality of Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile and Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.

These armaments have played pivotal roles within Russia’s military arsenal, complementing other assets such as the Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile, the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile, and the Geran-2 kamikaze drone. Their utilization has been instrumental in executing long-range strikes against various targets within Ukraine, spanning both military installations and civilian infrastructure.

As indicated by promotional materials disseminated by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, identified targets encompass Ukrainian “decision-making” hubs, weapon depots situated in urban centers, and key “transport nodes” facilitating the influx of military resources into Ukrainian territory. Additionally, critical infrastructure such as electricity distribution networks has been designated as viable targets.

Employing advanced radar systems, these missiles effectively identify and engage critical targets including command centers, troop concentrations, munitions depots, and air defense installations. Notably, the primary focus lies on neutralizing a mix of Ukrainian surface-to-air missile platforms of Soviet and Western origin, including systems such as the IRIS-T, Patriot, NASAMS, among others.

In pursuit of enhancing these missile systems, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, during a recent visit to the Mechanical Engineering Design Bureau in Kolomna, engaged in discussions regarding potential upgrades based on operational feedback from the Northern Military District. Insights provided by expert Dmitry Kornev shed light on prospective enhancements being contemplated by Russian military researchers, spanning improvements in flight performance, enhanced stealth characteristics to evade detection by missile defense systems, and diversification of launch platforms to include a wider array of aircraft.

Notably, ongoing modifications aim to expand the operational flexibility of the Kinzhal missile system, which currently relies on launches from MiG-31 ‘K’ and ‘I’ interceptor variants. For instance, recent operational deployments have seen the integration of the Kinzhal hypersonic missile with Su-34 fighter bombers, albeit with a potential trade-off in effectiveness due to the aircraft’s comparatively slower speed compared to the MiG-31K.

The selection of both the Kinzhal and Iskander-M systems appears to stem from their shared characteristics, with the Kinzhal essentially representing an Iskander-M missile without its first stage, following a similar flight trajectory post-separation of the booster stage.

Neither of these missiles adheres to the conventional ‘ballistic’ trajectory, rendering them challenging to track for air defense radar systems. The Iskander adopts a semi-ballistic flight path, achieving speeds surpassing Mach 4, thereby presenting a formidable obstacle to interception attempts. Similarly, the Kinzhal missile, boasting even greater velocity, possesses the capability to alter its flight direction mid-course, enhancing its elusiveness and complicating interception efforts.

Despite assertions from Ukraine regarding successful interceptions of the Kinzhal missile, substantiating evidence remains absent. Even with collaborative efforts involving Western defense officials and military analysts, leveraging US satellite data, no verified instances of Kinzhal interceptions have been reported.

Expert analysis by Kornev suggests that Russia has acquired invaluable insights into Western digital intelligence and surface-to-air missile (SAM) performance, likely prompting efforts to enhance its technological capabilities before Ukraine acquires upgraded versions of air defense missile software and tracking radars.

Iskander-M, introduced in 2006, underwent comprehensive upgrades for each missile brigade between 2010 and 2011, ensuring widespread deployment by 2020. Notably, the Iskander-M employs two distinct missile types—the ballistic 9M723 and the cruise 9M728. During periodic missile strikes on Ukrainian cities, Russia likely coordinates the use of the cruise 9M728 alongside assets such as the Gerans and Kh-101 missiles.

Analyzing previous trends, Ukraine’s increasing success in intercepting and neutralizing Russian missiles and drones has strained its inventory of Western SAMs. Kornev suggests that potential solutions may involve adjustments to missile flight characteristics, enhancements to combat equipment, and the development of tactics to overcome missile defense systems.

Following the formal exit of both Russia and the US from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, Iskander missiles now possess the potential to extend their range beyond the previous 500 km limit. Leveraging advanced mixed solid fuels, upgrading the engine of the 9M723 missile could extend its range to 1000 km without compromising the warhead’s weight requirement, which should remain at a minimum of 500 kg. Kornev speculates that efforts to achieve this enhancement may already be underway.

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal missile is equipped to carry various warhead configurations, including high-explosive penetrators capable of neutralizing heavily fortified targets. Demonstrating its potency, the missile effectively targeted ‘Object-711’ or Ivano-Frankivsk, a substantial underground depot established during the Soviet era in 1955, situated in the Delyatyn village within the Ivano-Frankivsk region on March 18, 2022.

The missile boasts an impressive range of 2,000 km and is equipped to carry a standard high-explosive fragmentation warhead weighing approximately 482 kg. Its capabilities are well-suited for effectively neutralizing equipment and infrastructure spread across open areas ranging from one to two hectares. Additionally, it features a cluster bomb warhead that typically disperses 54 bomblets from altitudes ranging between 900 to 1,400 meters, detonating approximately 10 meters above ground level, causing widespread damage over a significant area.

Nevertheless, opportunities for enhancement persist. Considerations include bolstering the missile’s effectiveness for non-nuclear applications by integrating a more potent warhead weighing around 800 kg or more. While maintaining the Iskander-M’s 500 km range, augmenting explosive power through a new engine represents a plausible upgrade path, as suggested by Kornev.

Another noteworthy development involves the modification of the Kinzhal missile to enable launch from Tu-22M3M and Tu-160M aircraft, commonly referred to as “Long-Range Aviation aircraft.” This strategic adaptation allows for unprecedented simultaneous hypersonic missile strikes from various directions, enhancing operational flexibility and potency.

Developed from the ground up utilizing technology and solutions from the 9M723 Iskander-M, the Kinzhal missile, with its remarkable 2,000 km range, can swiftly pinpoint targets across Europe, achieving speeds of up to Mach 10.

In terms of future advancements, the potential for implementing autonomous communication software between Iskander and Kinzhal missiles, as proposed by Kornev, presents a progressive concept. Imagine a scenario where these missiles collaborate to engage complex targets, executing swarm-like attacks while employing sophisticated defense evasion tactics. The current pace of technological advancement enables such intricate missile operations that surpass the capabilities of existing defensive systems.

While the realization of such advancements may seem improbable today, Kornev suggests that future developments could see this concept materialize, streamlining launch procedures and alleviating the complexities faced by crews during target acquisition and engagement.