Russia Says This Is Our First Glimpse Of Its Zircon Hypersonic Cruise Missile

The Russian Ministry of Defense has announced what it says is the first test launch of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile against a naval target. The first-in-class Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov fired the weapon during an event that may have been timed to coincide with the birthday of President Vladimir Putin.

The missile test took place on October 6, 2020, and the defense ministry released a brief video of the launch the following day, the president’s 68th birthday. According to TV Zvezda, the official television network of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Zircon, also sometimes transliterated as Tsirkon, achieved a speed of “more than Mach 8” before striking a target located 280 miles away in the Barents Sea during the test.

An official Kremlin account confirmed that Putin had been informed of the test launch the day after in a video conference with the Chief of the General Staff, First Deputy Minister of Defense Valery Gerasimov. The Russian defense chief told Putin that the missile achieved a maximum altitude of 17.4 miles and hit its target after a flight time of four and a half minutes. Gerasimov added that the Zircon, officially part of the 3K22 “weapons complex,” is expected to equip additional submarines and surface ships of the Russian Navy.

It’s also worth noting that a notice to airmen (NOTAM) was issued for this area of the White Sea covering the period October 5 to October 9, consistent with the test. This alerts pilots to potential hazards in the area and is standard procedure for a weapons test of this kind.

The footage that the Ministry of Defense subsequently released shows a missile fired from the 16-cell 3S14 vertical launch system (VLS) on the foredeck of the Northern Fleet’s 5,400-ton-displacement Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov, underway in the White Sea on the northwest coast of Russia. Another view shows the weapon pulling up, apparently stabilized by vectoring rockets, and then tilting to an angle less than 90 degrees. As the missile disappears into the cloud, the video ends.

While the video is presented as a first look at the new missile, there have been some suggestions it may have been edited by splicing together a combination of footage showing one or more other weapons, and not just the Zircon. Experts and observers have questioned whether the close-up scene of the missile ejected from its tube may show a previous, in-service weapon, to maintain the Zircon’s secrecy.

A screen capture from the latest Zircon video shows a cylindrical missile ejected from the 3S14 VLS on the frigate Admiral Gorshkov., Russian Ministry of Defense capture
Seconds after launch, the missile climbs away from the frigate., Russian Ministry of Defense capture

Some have also suggested the missile in the video, despite the official description, may actually be an older design, such as the Oniks anti-ship missile. The 3S14 VLS on the Project 22350 warships can also be loaded with the supersonic Oniks, as well as the subsonic Kalibr land-attack cruise missile. 

The video of the latest at-sea test doesn’t provide that many more clues about the appearance of the Zircon itself or exactly how it operates. In the past, Russian media have used graphics showing the weapon as a “waverider”-type hypersonic missile. This is the same principle used in the U.S. Air Force’s experimental X-51 Waverider, in which supersonic shockwaves are used to maintain the flight vehicle’s lift and stability. This would suggest the possibility of a conventional rocket motor bringing the Zircon to the required speed and altitude, before an air-breathing high-speed engine, such as a scramjet, takes over.

There have also been unconfirmed reports that the Zircon may employ “plasma stealth” technology, in which it’s shrouded from hostile radar by a cloud of radar-absorbing ionized particles. It’s an exotic concept that’s discussed in greater detail in this past War Zone feature. Claims of plasma stealth technology in relation to Russian weapon systems are not new and they should be taken as highly speculative at best. 

One of a number of graphics circulating on the internet purporting to show the Zircon., VIA AINONLINE

Supposedly, this is also not the first reported at-sea launch of the Zircon missile. In February 2020, state-run news outlet TASS claimed that an initial at-sea test launch had taken place in the Barents Sea early the previous month, again from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov. On this occasion, the weapon apparently engaged a simulated ground target, located in the Northern Urals, rather than a naval one. The reported January test saw the missile fly somewhat further too, apparently in excess of 311 miles. No photos or videos of the missile were released to accompany the test.

This is the first time the Russian Ministry of Defense has spoken specifically about the missile’s top speed. That the weapon reportedly hit Mach 8 would put its performance close to previous estimates and other official statements. Speaking in February 2019, President Putin had said that the weapon would have a top speed of around Mach 9 and a range of approximately 620 miles.

Otherwise, details about Zircon remain limited. The existence of the missile, which NPO Mashinostroyenia has been developing, has been known since at least early 2016 when it was identified as a component planned for the upgrade of the Russian Navy’s Kirov-class nuclear-powered battlecruiser fleet. Development of the weapon almost certainly started some time before that, likely in the early 2010s.

In June 2017, multiple reports, citing Russian state media, said that the Kremlin’s forces had tested a prototype Zircon a year ahead of schedule. This was then expected to be followed by a first at-sea trial of the weapon onboard the Admiral Gorshkov before the end of 2019.

An old image that has been floating around online for years now purportedly showing a Zircon missile, but which may actually showing something else., via Wikimedia

However, by January 2020 it seemed that the program might be running into difficulties when a leading Russian Navy official cited unspecified “childhood diseases” in its development effort.

Beyond the Project 22350 frigates, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko announced in November 2019 that the Zircon will also be integrated on the Pacific Fleet’s Project 1155 Udaloy-class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov and the Project 949A Oscar II-class submarine Irkutsk. In theory, any other ship capable of accommodating a 3S14 vertical launch system could potentially fire the Zircon in the future, too.

Meanwhile, Putin himself said that the first-in-class Project 20385 corvette Gremyashchiy, also assigned to the Pacific Fleet, “will certainly have Zirkon,” during a visit to Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea in October 2019. On the same occasion, Putin revealed that the missile would be able to strike land targets, as well as those at sea. Tests against targets of both types have now been completed.

Adding Zircon to various ships and submarines could significantly increase the overall capabilities of the Russian Navy. In this previous article, The War Zone looked at the game-changing potential of hypersonic weapons like the Zircon and noted that how, just flying at Mach 5, with a range of approximately 250 miles, the missile might provide a targeted American warship with very little time to respond with weapons or other countermeasures — providing these were fast enough to catch it.

Presuming it was the success that the Russian Defense Ministry suggests, when taken at face value, the latest at-sea test of the Zircon indicates the enigmatic missile is now on a more steady path toward operational use. Exactly when that will happen remains unclear and the earlier problems still underscore the enduring challenges of fielding practical hypersonic weaponry. 

The reality is, we still don’t really know what the state of this weapon’s development is. Considering how challenging pulling off an operational air-breathing hypersonic weapon capability is, especially one tasked with the anti-ship role, it would be stunning if the development of this weapon is truly as far along as Russia claims it to be.

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