Russia’s Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) are preparing to create a MiG-31K regiment in the Siberian city of Kansk, in the Central Military District (MD), fully equipped with Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missiles. The training of flight crews will commence in late 2021, with the switch to the new weapons systems complete by 2024. The preparations at the VKS base in Kansk will also likely serve as a model for equipping other VKS regiments. However, the location itself confirms the strategic importance of the new hypersonic missile system and its importance to the Aerospace Forces (Ferra.ru, May 10).
President Vladimir Putin places great emphasis on Russia developing and introducing such hypersonic weapons, while also suggesting that the country is far ahead of peer competitors in this field (see EDM, September 4, 2019). The role of such systems in the strategic thinking and planning of Moscow’s political-military leadership will continue to burgeon in the future as more of these enter service. It marks Russia’s further advance into high-precision strike capability, which will greatly enhance its overall deterrence as well as offer additional options to target enemy forces at depth (see EDM, February 26, 2019).
The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is a nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile (ALBM) with a claimed range in excess of 2,000 kilometers, achieving Mach 10, with the ability to perform evasive maneuvers at every stage of its flight. It can also be armed with a conventional high explosive fragmentation warhead. By introducing the Kinzhal to the VKS regiment in Kansk, it offers the capability to cover potential threats in all strategic directions across the Russian Federation. Flight crews of the 712th Fighter Aviation Regiment, based in Kansk, will train in their MiG-31K aircraft to master the Kinzhal ALBM. The commander of the Central MD, Lieutenant General Alexander Lapin, confirmed that the rearmament of the fighter regiment to hypersonic missile systems is scheduled for completion in 2024 (Izvestia, May 10).
The training will prepare pilots for flights in the special circumstances necessary for the use of the Kinzhal ALBM. Russian military specialists have noted the significance of creating such a powerful “operational fist” in the Central MD, which can be used to strengthen Russian military forces in any required strategic direction at short notice. Moscow-based Russian military expert Vladislav Shurygin highlighted the selection of Kansk and its strategic importance: “The place of this deployment was chosen as rationally as possible. From Siberia, MiGs with a long flight range can be thrown to the north, south, west or east of the country. The situation in all these areas cannot be called calm. In particular, after the withdrawal of the American army from Afghanistan, the situation in Central Asia, where militants will come, may worsen. In the Far East, we have not resolved territorial disputes with Japan. There are disagreements in the Arctic with a number of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] countries over the use of the Northern Sea Route. Hypersonic missiles will certainly cool any hotheads” (Izvestia, May 10).
The Kinzhal was first tested using a MiG-31B, in the Southern MD, in March 2018. The weapon first entered service in that military district in May 2018, equipping ten MiG-31Ks (Bmpd.livejournal.com, May 6, 2018). In addition to the hypersonic capability of this ALBM, the Kinzhal flies at the stratosphere boundary to minimize air resistance and is specially designed to evade enemy air defenses and offer improved high-precision targeting. It can be launched from Tu-22M3 bombers or MiG-31K interceptors. Its overall weight and characteristics of the ALBM compelled the defense ministry to specially modernize the existing MiG-31B to the MiG-31K. The newer model of this interceptor received new onboard equipment, increased fuel supply, and communications equipment to facilitate the receipt of target designation data. These changes forced the VKS to redevelop the methodology for the combat use of the MiG-31K and to retrain its pilots (Izvestia, May 10). The MiG-31K accelerates to Mach 2.3 to provide the Kinzhal with the necessary launch speed to then accelerate to Mach 10. With its 2,000-kilometer range, the Kinzhal avoids requiring the MiG-31K to enter the coverage area of enemy air defenses (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, November 31, 2019).
It is planned that the Kinzhal equipped regiment in Kansk will, in the future, be protected by the S-350 Vityaz surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which will be put into service in another city in Krasnoyarsk Territory, Achinsk, by the end of 2025 (Ferra.ru, May 10). Military expert Shurygin explained, “The MiG-31 with Kh-47M2 missiles must be reliably covered by air-defense systems. The S-350 [see EDM, April 7] will meet enemy aircraft and cruise missiles on the far approaches to the airfield. The Pantsir-S1, armed not only with anti-aircraft missiles but also with an artillery mount, will cover the MiG-31 and finish off the enemy that has broken through” (Izvestia, May 10).
Russian defense specialists noted that following the first appearance of the Kinzhal in the country’s military inventory, experts from the United States initially dismissed the new ALBM. Nevertheless, Lockheed Martin has since received an almost $1 billion contract from the US Air Force to develop an air-based hypersonic Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) missile. It is planned to achieve initial operational readiness by 2022. Russian defense officials see such developments in the US as an attempt to play catch up in the field of hypersonic missile systems (Regnum, April 29, 2020; Naukatehnika, December 4, 2019).
The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile is an invaluable asset for the VKS, providing high-precision strike and nuclear options. The refitted MiG-31K has been modernized to suit the new ALBM. Over a three-year period, the regimental flight crews will be trained, doubtless drawing on the experience of testing the ALBM in the Southern MD and (in November 2019) over the Arctic, before this advanced system is fully functional within the Central MD. The hypersonic Kinzhal ALBM fits a pattern of concerted state investment in high-precision systems to offer scope and depth to the non-nuclear elements in Russia’s deterrence strategy.