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Russia’s Zircon Hypersonic Missile Challenges US Naval Dominance

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Russia's Zircon Hypersonic Missile Challenges US Naval Dominance

While the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile has not attracted the same level of media attention as the strategic Avangard re-entry vehicle or even the air-launched Kinzhal aeroballistic missile, it nevertheless represents an important advance in military technology and represents the state-of-the-art of Russian technologies. It promises to maintain and even expand Russia’s conventional deterrence through its high guarantee of effective retaliatory capability even against the most advanced anti-air and anti-missile defenses.

The secrecy surrounding the 3M22 Zircon, to the point of there existing no official images of the weapon, is remarkable and reminds one of the careful effort to conceal the true nature of the P-700 Granit heavy anti-ship missile, specifically its air-breathing ramjet propulsion.  It is also indicative of the importance attached to this weapon by the Russian government. Zircon has already been assigned a NATO reporting designation of SS-N-33, indicating that the alliance is treating the reports of its development and testing fairly seriously.  As well it should, given that the weapon system is being developed by the world-famous NPO Mashinostroyeniya know for, among other things, the aforementioned Granit and the Oniks/Yakhont cruise missile boasting ramjet propulsion, top speeds several times the speed of sound,  and the capability of striking land and naval targets. While the Granit was never used in combat, Oniks has already proved itself in Syria, where it was used to destroy extremist high-value targets with high precision and played an important role in deterring NATO strikes against Syria by threatening its naval assets in the Mediterranean.

While the Oniks is still a potent weapon that poses an extremely difficult challenge for any point-defense system due to its small size and high speed, the nature of the offense-defense technological race means that its successor in the form of Zircon is already under development and will likely enter service within the next few years, though according to some officials it already forms part of Russia’s arsenal. It is entirely possible that while the weapon is still undergoing development and testing, some missiles are already being carried by naval vessels on an experimental basis, in the same way the air-launched Kinzhal aeroballistic missile was deployed while still undergoing evaluation.

The reports that the Zircon is to be launched from the same 3S14 vertical launchers that are used for the Oniks indicate the two missiles are in the same weight and size class, with comparable range and payload characteristics. The one advantage the Zircon will have over the Oniks is the speed, which various sources estimate at between Mach 6 and Mach 9, a figure that may well depend on the missile’s flight altitude. If a low-altitude trajectory is adopted, on the one hand the dense layers of the atmosphere would reduce the speed considerably while on the other reducing reaction time by allowing the missile to clear the radar horizon relatively close to its target. A high-altitude cruise at 30-40km would enable it to accelerate to maximum velocity likely approaching that of a short-range ballistic missile and attack its target in a steep dive. While the high-altitude approach would provide the adversary with greater opportunity to detect the missile whose heat alone would make it difficult to conceal, it still would be a difficult weapon to intercept, particularly since most weapons sent against it would be considerably slower. It is not clear whether the Zircon is capable of high-g evasive maneuvers. If it is, that would increase its resistance to interception even more.

The differences between high and low flight trajectories likely account for the different cited maximum ranges for the weapon. While some sources list its range as only 400km, President Putin’s recent address included the claim the weapon has effective range in excess of 1,000km. Moreover, should an air-launched variant of the Zircon be developed, which is rather likely considering the existence of sea-, land-, and air-launched versions of the Oniks, its maximum range should be well in excess of 1,000km, particularly if the launching aircraft is flying at high altitude and at supersonic speed.

Once operational, the naval variant of the Zircon will be deployed on all ships currently capable of carrying the Kalibr and Oniks missile systems, from 800 ton missile corvettes to frigates and even ships currently armed with the large Soviet-era Granit anti-ship missiles, namely the nuclear-powered missile cruisers and cruise missile submarines.  It appears that, as in the case of Oniks, the primary mission is anti-ship, with a combination of inertial, satellite, and active radar guidance, with a secondary land-attack role. On account of its rather shorter range and smaller payload, it is unlikely to displace Kalibr as the naval land-attack weapon of choice. While there are reports that the Zircon could be used to target US command and control facilities on the Atlantic coast, the weapon’s range means the launching submarine would have to cruise uncomfortably close to US coasts and therefore risk detection and destruction in order to bring its missiles to bear. It is doubtful the Zircon would be the sole or even the main weapon used for conventional strikes against land targets in such a scenario, and there are no indications it is intended to completely or even partially replace the Kalibr. However, the Zircon would have one major advantage over the Kalibr in the land-attack role, namely its potential ability to destroy underground targets due to its extremely high speed, if equipped with an appropriate “bunker buster” warhead and launched on a plunging trajectory against its target. Kalibr does not have the ability to defeat such heavily protected targets, and while Kinzhal potentially does, it is an air-launched weapon only. Thus the Zircon promises to not only preserve the competitiveness and viability of Russia’s anti-ship weapon systems but also provide an important and so far lacking niche capability.

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  • AlexanderAmproz

    Sorry it isn’t in English, but in French,
    and up tou you in ROMÂNĂ ESPAÑOL ITALIANO TÜRKÇE DEUTSCH PORTUGUÊS

    https://www.voltairenet.org/article205308.html

    Zirkon et Avangard : le dernier message de Poutine aux services de Renseignement états-uniens

    par Valentin Vasilescu

    Dans son dernier discours devant l’Assemblée fédérale, le président Vladimir Poutine semble avoir évoqué la possibilité de modifier le missile hypersonique Zirkon avant que les systèmes Avanguard ne rentrent en service. La Russie se trouverait ainsi, à grand frais, en position de supériorité face aux États-Unis.

    Le missile hypersonique Zirkon, ainsi que le système Avangard, ont été mentionnés par le président Vladimir Poutine dans son discours du 20 février [1]. Il y a également averti que si les États-Unis devaient placer des missiles à moyenne portée en Europe, la Russie ciblerait non seulement les installations de lancement, mais aussi leurs centres de commandement. Certains d’entre eux sont sur le continent américain.

    Nous avons déjà été habitués au fait que l’association de certains termes dans les discours de Vladimir Poutine n’est pas une coïncidence ; et qu’ils ont un substrat connu des services de Renseignement US.

    La seule arme qui puisse frapper les États-Unis, à partir de la Russie, pour laquelle le Pentagone n’a pas d’antidote, est Avangard. Mais la Russie n’aura que deux systèmes Avangard en service opérationnel, et seulement à la fin de 2019.

    En l’absence des Avangard, Zirkon a un énorme potentiel de modernisation et d’adaptation, ce que les États-Unis craignent le plus. Je suppose qu’un Zircon avec un rayon accru devient un Avangard plus petit pouvant frapper le territoire états-unien.

    Je pense que le président Poutine aimerait faire savoir aux Etats-uniens que Zirkon, avec son énorme vitesse, pourrait devenir leur cauchemar, après leur sortie unilatérale du Traité sur les forces nucléaires à portée intermédiaire (FNI).

    Le moteur Scramjet (ramjet) de Zirkon peut augmenter de 5 fois la quantité de combustible initial, ce qui permettrait des démarrages et des arrêts répétés.

    De cette manière, il revient plusieurs fois à l’altitude et à la vitesse de croisière initiales et atteint un rayon d’action de plus de 6 000 km. Nous devons noter que la masse du moteur Scramjet et de son carburant (hydrogène liquide) est de 500 à 600 kg.

    La densité optimale de l’atmosphère est celle où la résistance au frottement est aussi petite que possible. Pourtant, le moteur Scramjet fonctionnera à une altitude de croisière de 50 à 60 km. Pour atteindre cette hauteur, Zirkon aura besoin d’un moteur de fusée plus puissant que celui qu’il a actuellement.

    Une variante serait qu’un missile russe similaire RSD-10 (15Zh45) assurerait le lancement simultané de 2 à 4 systèmes Zirkon à une altitude de 60 km. Le RD-10 avait une trajectoire balistique, tandis que le nouveau Zirkon, avec ses sauts hypersoniques, rend impossible la prévision de ses paramètres de trajectoire par le Pentagone.

    • jako

      As far as I know Avangard has already entered service…
      It was in the news last year info that by the end of 2018 Avangad is about to “enter service” and if not than in 2019 at the latest…well to be honest I never saw confirmation…..
      I don’t know where did they get that Avangard will enter by the “end of 2019” and the number of gliders?
      I think that number of gliders was top secret…
      I’ve never seen any news about delays on Avangard…

      Also Zircon has official range about 1000 km and article is talking
      about 6000 km?!
      Interesting article thanks!

      • RJ O’Guillory

        …when they put their small-nuke-engine on any of them, or their torpedo…the range will be endless….

        • jako

          One can’t put “nuke engine” on everything.
          It doesn’t serve purpose.
          Those missiles are HYPER-sonic speed and “nuke engine” is far too slow for those speeds.
          Zircon is going up to MACH-8 and Avangard up to MACH-27 speed

          • RJ O’Guillory

            ….sorry Jako…but watch Putin’s March speech where he explains their new weaponry. If what he says is true…(I believe him, as I think he is trying to warn the west from a deterrence standpoint, or he wouldn’t have announced it)…they have already…”put”…their miniature nuke-engine on cruise missiles and their long-range-deep-submersible-torpedo… so good luck with that. If what he said was untrue, you would have heard a bunch of rabble from The West’s MIC… downplaying the developments. However, all you heard was crickets…nothing but silence from our MIC. They know their 5 billion dollar Carriers, which can’t get munitions to the flight deck, their 4.5 billion dollar Destroyers, which have to be towed out of The Panama Canal, as they break down too often, and their trillion dollar F-35 garbage is useless against a stealth torpedo, with unlimited range, and with the proper nuke on board. If detonated off one of our coasts, it would wipe out every major city on the coast with a nuclear tidal wave. So I think you are incorrect, and perhaps should study up on the topic before issuing your proclamations. The MIC certainly started paying attention…but then again…they will tell any lie to get more funding and power. But I believe Putin.

          • jako

            You did not understand what I was saying.
            I have said that on HYPER-SONIC missiles one can’t put nuke engine because it is too slow as speed. It does not serve purpose.

            I have never said that Russia didn’t put mini nuke engine on CRUISE missile!
            I have never said that Russia didn’t put mini nuke engine on their huge torpedo that is the size of mini submarine !

            We should not confuse different weapons because the differences are important.

            So check my previous comment again please and see that this was misunderstanding.

          • Old Man

            Sorry RJ nukes off shore do not produce an ” nuclear tidal wave” perhaps you should study up on the topic. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/70-years-ago-the-us-military-set-off-a-nuke-underwater-and-it-went-very-badly

          • RJ O’Guillory

            ….not according to what I have read. If what Putin says is true, the torpedo is 100 feet long, has unlimited range, can travel at depths and speeds untouchable by our current defenses. I do not see why a huge nuke exploded at the correct depth, would not be the same as an underwater earthquake, and the resultant tidal wave? Granted, it may not reach the mountains of Virginia, or North Carolina…but right off of Manhattan? Right off the coast of Florida? Or the Gulf Coast? Such a weapon would destroy those areas. I worked a towboat as a teenager down into Louisiana and Texas…and there are some very low-lying areas in those parts of the country that would be devastated. What I find really interesting, is the need to dismiss this information as if it didn’t matter…or as though Putin is lying? I think he wants peace…and will defend his country against The Corrupt West in anyway he can, so I wonder at the need to dismiss his claims? Will it take WW III, and the destruction of The US Naval Fleet…and millions of deaths to convince you of the superiority of these weapons? US DoD…(whom I am retired from)…has already stated that they do not have the defensive measures to stop these newer, faster, more-maneuverable and deadly weapons, so I wonder why the…”belief push back”… from others?

    • Jesus

      Vasile Vasilescu is a bit off the mark from past read articles, Avangard is a hypersonic glide vehicle flying within 60-100 kms height at Mach 26, while the Zircon is a missile that can fly a low or high trajectory at Mach 6-9.

      What is a strange assessment is his
      “ The Zirkon Scramjet (ramjet) engine can increase the amount of fuel by 5 times, which would allow repeated starts and stops.

      In this way, he returns several times to the initial altitude and cruising speed and reaches a range of more than 6,000 km. We must note that the mass of the Scramjet engine and its fuel (liquid hydrogen) is 500 to 600 kg.

      I do not know where Vasilescu gets the idea a hypersonic missile “ would have repeated starts and stops…..etc

      If Russia wants to build a hypersonic missile with longer range that arches to 45 kms cruising altitude and has a range of 6000 kms, it will have to be a larger missile than the current Zircon that fits the 3S14 vertical launchers and 533MM torpedo tubes.

      • Robert McMaster

        Nobody gives a rat’s ass. The Russians take forever to put anything into serial production. It’ll take them years to actually place the first few hypersonics in active service. And then they will dribble out really slow which is the Russian way.

        And the Americans know i. The Americans know the Russians cannot deliver for some time.

        • Jesus

          Maybe you don’t give a rats ass, the reality of the matter Avangard will be operational this year, and Zircon will be as well. It is idiotic to have these cutting edge weaponry and not produce them in decent number…..yea the usual western mindset…. they don’t have the money BS.
          The reason T14 and Suk 57 are not produced in larger numbers is because existing tanks with their upgrades and Suk 35 can handle the best weapons NATO can field.

          • Robert McMaster

            Well, I hope your vision is correct. I am doubtful though. Maybe is China would pony us some serious dough. That would be good.

          • Jesus

            Russia does not need any money from anybody, Putin needs to amend the constitution in regards to the Russian central bank being linked to western central banks. Then Russia can print its own money without any external constraints.

          • Robert McMaster

            Well put. What you write is certainly true. Yes, much better than Chinese money. Though that would be nice icing on the cake.

  • verner

    zirkon sounds like a grave threat to any aircraft carrier group or any major vessel moronistan (aka usa) can put to sea, or any french or english. they better keep those dinosaurs back home where they are protected and harmless. guess they, the fukus-group of criminal and corrupt nwo-countries, realise that all is not what it appears to be and sometime you bite more than you can swallow, as is amply illustrated by say the syrian debacle and the venezuelan one. all for nothing and taxpayers taxes wasted on murder and devastation of civilizations and children and women and not too many isis-terrorist (since they are paid for by the fukus-group, by and large)!

  • Jesus

    Zircon flies at Mach 9 by power generated through its scramjet power plant, Avangard glides at heights of 60-100 kms after it is released by its rocket carrier, it does not use a power plant to reach those speeds, however, a power plant is available for trajectory correction or evasive action when needed.

  • Raptar Driver

    There is no challenge anymore, it is over, U.S. naval dominance that is.

  • Robert McMaster

    Blah, blah, blah, the Russies suck when it comes to serial production. Of anything. It’ll take forever for them to produce the first operational hypersonics. And they will dribble out real slow after that. Like Yansen submarines or SU57s. The American see this weakness, this lack of resolve, this Russian timidity. Lost their mojo, got no balls.

  • verner

    guess you’re entitled to the views you proffer here – the only problem is that you’re blind to the reality and due to the deep rooted bias that thwarts your thinking process, entirely wrong – go back and think again and think right for once!