russian kinzhal missile system

Russia converting Kinzhal missiles into nuclear weapons would be “complex”

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russian kinzhal missile system

Russia’s ability to convert its Kinzhal hypersonic missiles into nuclear weapons is possible but a “complex process,” according to nuclear experts who spoke with Newsweek.

Russia on Thursday fired six conventional Kinzhals, translated to “Daggers,” as part of an 81-missile barrage that included myriad models. It was Russia’s first use of hypersonic missiles since the first month of the war, which began when Ukraine was invaded on February 24, 2022.

Nuclear provocations have become routine on Russia’s behalf throughout the duration of the war. But the process of converting Kinzhals involves more than just flipping a proverbial switch, said Areg Danagoulian, associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

He told Newsweek that the overall missile design is optimized to be either conventional or possess nuclear capabilities. Modifications are adapted to conform to each specific “version” as hypersonic missiles can travel at “almost cosmic velocities.”

Russian Kinzhal missile system A MiG-31K fighter jet, with a Kinzhal missile system, performs during Victory Day in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on June 24, 2020. Kinzhals, used as part of a major Russian missile barrage in Ukraine on Thursday, are nuclear-capable weapons. Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty

It’s a question of practicality, he said, and whether altering conventional missiles to become nuclear-capable is easier than building new missiles. He said the latter option is more sensible.

“Taking a missile that already has a conventional version and modifying it to be nuclear is a very complex process,” Danagoulian said. “It’s not like taking out a warhead and putting in a nuclear warhead. It’s not like that.”

He said nuclear weapons require a unique set of functionalities that are part of the warhead, and nuclear warheads require a permissive action link (PAL) that essentially keeps such weapons out of the “wrong” hands by requiring specific codes to be enabled for firing.

Both the missiles and the aircraft carrying the warheads require PAL, Danagoulian said, with the aircraft being modified to support PAL configuration.

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal can travel as far as about 1,250 miles and possesses a payload of 480 kilograms (about 1,058 pounds). It was derived from Russia’s ground-launched 9K720 Iskander-M missile, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Research published February 23 by Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists, and Matt Korda, a senior research associate with the project, said that Russia’s current nuclear stockpile includes about 4,477 warheads.

“Of these, about 1,588 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and at heavy bomber bases, while an approximate additional 977 strategic warheads, along with 1,912 nonstrategic warheads, are held in reserve,” they wrote.

While Russian delivery vehicles deployed near Ukraine are considered to be dual-capable, Kristensen and Korda had not at the time of publication “seen any indication that Russia has deployed nuclear weapons or nuclear custodial units along with those delivery vehicles.”

Newsweek reached out to Kristensen and Korda by email for comment.

“What I would deduce from this is that Russia has developed a nuclear-capable version of the Kinzhal, so they would not need to replace the warhead in an existing non-nuclear capable Kinzhal,” Robert Goldston, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, told Newsweek.

“I don’t see documentation, however, about how many of each kind of Kinzhal they have, and how many MiG-31Ks they have which are capable of carrying nuclear Kinzhals,” he added.

Michael Duitsman, research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, told Newsweek that conventional and nuclear missiles appear identical from the outside but internally are distinct from one another.

Russian nuclear warheads typically require extra electrical power to operate specific warhead features, he said, along with potentially “special signals” to complete the warhead-arming process.

“As a result, the conventional Kinzhal variant would be incapable of delivering a nuclear warhead, and the nuclear variant would be incapable of delivering a conventional warhead,” Duitsman said.

Operationally, he added, Russian non-strategic nuclear warheads are stored at separate bases from the units capable of launching them and are guarded, maintained by a special part of the Russian military called the Twelfth Chief Directorate (or 12 GUMO).

“Upon receiving an order from Russian leadership, a 12 GUMO unit would remove the nuclear warheads from a storage bunker and transport them to the unit responsible for launching the missile,” he said. “The warhead is then mated to the missile, which is then loaded onto the aircraft.

“The time required for this process will depend on unit readiness and training levels but could easily take several hours.”

Russia has probably built nuclear-optimized weapons, Danagoulian said, agreeing that it’s difficult to pinpoint Russia’s total nuclear arsenal. They might have spent the winter building more missiles to prepare for spring and summer offensives, he added.

Also, having nuclear-capable options does not make it “any more likely” Russia would resort to the worst-case scenario.

“If Russia wanted to use Russian weapons, they have so many options, so many choices,” he said. “The Kinzhal is not the make-it-or-break-it weapon by any means.”

Low inventory and higher nuclear bar

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Mark Cancian told Newsweek that many missiles have duel capabilities, with Russia maintaining more tactical weapons than the U.S.

“[Russia’s] inventory of other missiles is getting low,” Cancian said. “They used up a lot of the Iranian missiles, for example.”

Another aspect that has come into play is how productive Ukraine’s air defense has been in shooting down Russian missiles. That is due to Ukraine understanding that missile targets are specific.

“Ukrainians have been quite successful in air defense in that the Russians have been going after the electrical infrastructure,” Cancian said. “Those are point targets, so the Ukrainians know where the Russians are going to attack.”

However, Ukraine Air Force Command spokesperson Yurii Ihnat said Thursday on Ukrainian state TV following Russia’s attack that his nation has “no capabilities to counter these weapons.”

Cancian said air defense systems exist—such as U.S.-provided Stingers—but in small numbers. He believes the Kinzhals are minimally produced and scarce, so they’re used only on specific occasions.

“The amount of security and the people who can do the work for conventional munitions is a much lower bar than nuclear,” he said, citing specially guarded facilities operated by credible individuals. “There’s a whole institutional set of requirements for nukes that are much more complicated.”

Update 3/10/23, 4:16 p.m. ET: This story was updated with comment from Michael Duitsman.


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