CNN — Ukraine claims it has evidence Russia fired an advanced hypersonic missile – one that experts say is almost impossible to shoot down – for the first time in the almost 2-year-old war.
The government-run Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise said in a Telegram post that debris recovered after a February 7 attack on the Ukrainian capital pointed to the use of a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile by the Russian military.
“Markings on the parts and fragments, the identification of components and parts, and the features of the relevant type of weapon” point to the first-ever use of the Zircon in combat, said the institute, which is part of Ukraine’s Justice Ministry.
The Telegram post was accompanied by a video showing dozens of pieces of debris believed to be from the new missile.
Ukrainian authorities reported four people were killed and 38 others injured in Kyiv during the February 7 attacks, but no casualties have been directly attributed to the alleged Zircon missile.
There was also no mention of the launch platform for the missile, though previous reports in Russian state media say it has been deployed on a warship.
Experts say the Zircon, if it lives up to what the Russian government says about it, is a formidable weapon.
Its hypersonic speed makes it invulnerable to even the best Western missile defenses, like the Patriot, according to the United States-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA).
The alliance says its speed has been put at Mach 8, or almost 9,900 kilometers per hour (6,138 mph). Hypersonic is defined as any speed above Mach 5 (3,836 mph).
“If that information is accurate, the Zircon missile would be the fastest in the world, making it nearly impossible to defend against due to its speed alone,” the alliance says on its website.
The site also points to the missile’s plasma cloud as another “valuable” feature.
“During flight, the missile is completely covered by a plasma cloud that absorbs any rays of radio frequencies and makes the missile invisible to radars. This allows the missile to remain undetected on its way to the target,” it says.
Additionally, the MDAA says the Zircon is “a maneuvering anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile” with a range of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 kilometers (310 to 620 miles).
When the Russian navy frigate Admiral Gorshkov set out on a combat mission last January, leader Vladimir Putin boasted about the Zircon missiles the ship was carrying.
“It has no analogues in any country in the world,” Putin said, according to a report from the state media agency TASS. “I am sure that such powerful weapons will reliably protect Russia from potential external threats and will help ensure the national interests of our country,” he added.
If Russia has introduced the new weapon into the conflict, it could mean trouble for a Ukrainian air defense already straining to repel Moscow’s aerial attacks.
For instance, in that February 7 attack in which the Zircon was allegedly used, three Iskander ballistic missiles and four Kh-22 cruise missiles fired by Russian forces evaded attempts to bring them down, data from Ukraine’s air force shows.
Although air defenses have brought down Iskander missiles in the past, it is believed that Ukraine has failed to intercept a single Kh-22 in almost two years of war. Speaking in December, Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat said that Russia had fired almost 300 Kh-22s so far in the war.
Ukraine’s air defenses did have some success during the February 7 attack, bringing down 26 of 29 Kh-101, Kh-555 and Kh-55 type cruise missiles, all three Kalibr cruise missiles and 15 of 20 Shahed drones fired by Russia. But those are less-advanced than the Zircon.
Despite that, analysts caution not to exaggerate the impact the use of the Zircon could have on the war as a whole.
As it is a new – and expensive – technology, one question is, how many has Russia produced?
A key “consideration is Russia’s ability to produce and field a capability like Zircon at scale, especially as the program will compete for financial and other resources with priorities like rebuilding the Russian ground forces,” Sidharth Kaushal, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote last year after the Admiral Gorshkov allegedly deployed with Zircons aboard.
CNN’s Svitlana Vlasova, Mariya Knight, Andrew Carey and Jack Guy contributed to this report.