Russian Introducing New Inflight Retargeting Capability Onto Its Most Dangerous Tactical Missile: Kinzhal’s Importance Growing

The Russian Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air launched ballistic missile is set to gain a new capability to change target acquisition during the flight, according to a source close to the Russian Aerospace Forces cited by state media outlet TASS on October 25. With the Kinzhal being closely derived from 9M723 surface-to-surface missile from the Iskander-M system, which already has this capability, it was long thought that the Kinzhal could also be retargeted during flight as well. This was notably a key factor distinguishing the Iskander from its Soviet predecessor the OTR-23 Oka, with the required technologies developed in the Soviet Union for the enhanced Oka-U variant before development was cancelled with the end of the Cold War. The Kinzhal has gained growing importance in the Russian Military since it first entered service in late 2017, and has been relied on for high profile deployments in theatres from the Arctic and Northeast Europe to Syria and Belarus. Russia’s lack of meaningful numbers of fifth generation fighter aircraft, and the relatively small size of its air force compared to its Soviet era strength or the strength of NATO fleets, has made high impact asymmetric assets such as air launched ballistic missiles particularly critical to sustaining a viable defensive capability. 

Kinzhal missiles have been employed extensively in the Ukrainian theatre, and famously achieved the destruction of newly delivered Patriot missile batteries in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in May when fired by MiG-31K strike fighters. The number of aircraft classes able to deploy the missiles has expanded from the MiG-31K to include the Tu-22M3M bomber, the MiG-31I strike fighter, and most recently the Su-34 strike fighter, and a miniaturised version is reportedly under development for the Su-57 fifth generation fighter. With production of the missiles having quintupled since the escalation of war in Ukraine in February 2022, the very widely fielded Su-34 fighters which are currently in production on a large scale are expected to be equipped with the missiles across multiple units. The the Kinzhal can engage targets 2000km, and pairs high manoeuvrability with a low altitude semi balletic trajectory which makes it extremely difficult to track, intercept and at times challenging to even detect during flight. Expanded production of the missiles has occurred in parallel to significant expansion in the scale of production of Iskander-M ground based systems and particularly their 9M723 missiles to several times pre-war rates. This has not only kept up with expenditures of the missiles in Ukraine, but also allowed new regiments to be equipped with them both domestically and in neighbouring Belarus.