What are hypersonic missiles and why is Russia using them?

<span>Photograph: AP</span>
Photograph: AP

Russia has deployed manoeuvrable Kinzhal missiles that can fly at 10 times the speed of sound

What are hypersonic missiles?

Russia has said it has twice deployed its newest Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile in Ukraine, claiming on Sunday to have destroyed a fuel depot near Mykolaiv and on Saturday an underground missile and ammunition storage site in the west.

The state news agency RIA Novosti has said the attacks represented the first use of the next-generation weapon since the start of the war in Ukraine and western analysts said they were the first time hypersonic missiles had been used in combat.

The Russian defence minister and officers in February, next to a MiG-31 jet carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic missile
The Russian defence minister and officers in February, next to a MiG-31 jet carrying a Kinzhal hypersonic missile. Photograph: AP

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, has described the Kinzhal, designed to be launched from a MiG fighter jet, as “an ideal weapon”. It can fly at up to 10 times the speed of sound and – like a slower cruise missile – can manoeuvre in mid-flight, making it harder for air-defence systems to track and intercept.

The missiles can be used to deliver conventional warheads at higher speeds and more accurately than others, but could also be used to deliver nuclear weapons. Several countries are working on the technology, including China and the US.

Related: Would Vladimir Putin actually use nuclear weapons?

Vasily Kashin, a Russian analyst, told Agence France-Presse the greater penetration and destructive power of the Kinzhal system would be more efficient than subsonic missiles at destroying underground storage sites, but other experts have suggested it would not have a major impact on the course of the conflict.

Pavel Felgenhauer, another Russian analyst, said the missile would change little on the ground in Ukraine beyond “giving a certain psychological and propaganda effect”, adding that its use may suggest Russian forces were running out of other weapons.

A Belgian defence strategy analyst, Joseph Henrotin, also tweeted that Russia might be running out of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, or wanted to raise the stakes by deploying a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

Ukraine’s government has confirmed the attacks but said it was not yet able to say what type of missiles were used.