Russia claims to have destroyed a Ukrainian ammunition depot with hypersonic missiles capable of flying at five to 25 times the speed of sound.
If confirmed, it would mark a dramatic escalation in Russia’s brutal campaign to crush the pro-Western government in kyiv and bring the country back into Moscow’s orbit.
But so far, according to US officials and military experts, what Russia has unleashed appears to be hypersonic hype about a potentially devastating weapon.
“It’s a bit of a headache to be honest with you,” a Pentagon official told NBC News on Monday. “If that’s true, why would you need a hypersonic missile fired from not so far away to hit a building?”
Military experts have said that the only reason Russian President Vladimir Putin would use such weapons against underarmed Ukrainians at this stage would be to score propaganda points.
“Russia doesn’t have many of them and, frankly, doesn’t need to use them in this conflict,” said Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They are very, very fast and designed to evade missile defenses.”
But, he said, “Ukraine doesn’t really have a missile defense.”
If Russia fired such a weapon, it would be more for propaganda than to let Ukraine and the rest of the world know “that they have them and they will use them,” he said.
President Joe Biden said Monday night that Russia “launched its hypersonic missile because it’s the only thing it can go through with absolute certainty.” He described it as a “substantial weapon”, but added that “with the same warhead on it as any other launch missile, it doesn’t make much difference except that it’s almost impossible to Stop”.
“There’s a reason to use it,” Biden added.
Earlier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin refused to “confirm or dispute” Moscow’s claim that it destroyed an underground warehouse in Ukraine’s western Ivano-Frankivsk region with hypersonic missiles called Kinzhals.
“I wouldn’t see it as a game changer,” the Pentagon chief said of the hypersonic missiles on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday.
“I think the reason (Putin) is using these types of weapons is that he’s trying to restore some momentum,” Austin said. “And again, we’ve seen it outright attack towns and civilians (and) we expect that to continue.”
US officials agreed, saying Russia’s use of hypersonic missiles would be seen as a show of force by Moscow, but would not fundamentally change the dynamics of the three-week war that began with an invasion by Russian forces. and reached a bloody stalemate.
The Russians, they said, have more than enough rockets, missiles and other traditional weapons to continue decimating Ukraine’s defenses and cities.
The United States has been working on developing hypersonic missiles since the 2000s, but it still lags behind China and Russia.
Next-gen weapons are very difficult to take down due to their maneuverability, Cancian said.
Intercontinental ballistic missiles fly much faster, but follow a predictable trajectory, allowing them to be intercepted before they hit targets.
But existing US missile defense systems, including the Navy’s Aegis system, would struggle to intercept hypersonic missiles, experts said.
Josh Lederman contributed.