The Zircon: How Much of a Threat Does Russia’s Hypersonic Missile Pose?
Main Image Credit Ready to deploy: Russia has announced that it will field a Gorshkov-class frigate armed with the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic cruise missile. Image: Yakovlev / Adobe Stock
Russian moves to operationalise the Zircon hypersonic missile represent an important development, but the significance – especially in terms of the current conflict – should not be overstated.
The Russian Ministry of Defence’s recent announcement that a Gorshkov-class frigate armed with the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic cruise missile will be deployed drew a good deal of international attention. Though the missile represents a potent capability for the Russian navy, claims regarding its utility should be caveated and placed within proper context.
The Missile and its Potential Significance
The Zircon is a scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missile. Hypersonic cruise missiles are unlike boost-glide vehicles such as Russia’s Avangard and China’s DF-ZF, which rely on the initial momentum provided by multi-stage rocket boosters like those used on a ballistic missile to accelerate them to hypersonic speeds. Instead, hypersonic cruise missiles rely on cooled supersonic combustion ramjet engines, which use the flow of air at supersonic speeds, compressed by the forward motion of the missile, to drive combustion. To achieve this, a missile needs to be accelerated to high supersonic speeds by, for example, a rocket booster before the scramjet engine takes over. For instance, the experimental X-51 waverider relied on a rocket booster from the ATACMS missile. This necessarily means that hypersonic cruise missiles need to be relatively large to carry both the propellants and oxidisers needed for rocket propulsion as well as their scramjets, along with additional payloads such as sensors.
Even so, however, at a reported 8–10 metre length, the Zircon is somewhat smaller than missiles such as the DF-17 which mount hypersonic glide vehicles. This represents an advantage given its maritime role as it means that, in theory, the missile can be carried on a wide range of vessels. The Zircon is expected to be compatible with the 3S-14 vertical launch system that is found on both the Gorshkov and Grigorevich class and which will be fitted on the Kirov-class cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, which is currently undergoing modernisation (though the status of this modernisation has been questioned). The launch system is also found on a range of smaller vessels like the Project 20380 corvette. Finally, the missile will likely be a key component of the armament of the Yasen-class submarine, which is Russia’s quietest submarine to date.
In tactical terms, hypersonic cruise missiles should in principle represent a challenge to high-value Western maritime platforms, as well as ground targets. At sea, for example, a destroyer’s radar and electronic support measures (ESM) sensors would detect a missile flying on a low-altitude trajectory at distances of 12–14 nautical miles. From this point, assuming the missile is a Zircon flying at speeds of Mach 5–6, the vessel would have 15 seconds to react. Such compressed reaction times could significantly reduce the number of missiles needed to overwhelm the air defences of a surface task group. Moreover, given that kinetic energy is the single best predictor of lethality against large surface targets (more so than warhead size), the high speed of the Zircon would seem to make it an optimal vector of attack against larger vessels. Against ground targets, the kinetic energy on impact of a hypersonic missile may allow deep and hardened targets to be attacked.
The missile's size represents an advantage given its maritime role as it means that, in theory, it can be carried on a wide range of vessels
That said, physical limitations may constrain the missile’s effectiveness against mobile platforms. First of all, missiles travelling at hypersonic speeds ionise the air around them and generate a plasma layer which makes external guidance and the use of onboard sources of data (such as active seekers) extremely difficult. This likely necessitates very precise inertial sensors, among other things, to enable a missile to navigate towards its target. Moreover, because the missile’s plasma layer precludes the use of active radar and other onboard sensors to track a target vessel in the terminal phase, the missile likely has to slow down to well short of hypersonic speeds in order to track mobile targets. In its final approach towards a target, the missile may not be appreciably faster than missiles such as its predecessor, the P-800. This may be less of a challenge when targeting fixed ground targets, where the missile does not need to use an active seeker and thus does not need to slow down to mitigate the effects of a plasma layer. Secondly, in order to maintain the air pressure needed for the operation of a scramjet engine, a hypersonic cruise missile needs to maintain an altitude of around 20 km for most of its flight. As such, it is not obvious that the 3M22 can approach its target on a low-altitude skimming trajectory, and it will likely become visible to a ship’s radar at greater distances than a low-flying (if slower) missile. It is possible that the missile can descend to a lower-altitude trajectory in its terminal phase having cruised to this point at a higher altitude, but at this point it has likely slowed to a speed short of Mach 5. As such, the missile can either be hypersonic or low observable but not both in tandem. Its vulnerability to both midcourse and terminal-phase defences, especially if they receive warning from other sources like airborne assets, may thus be greater than is sometimes assumed. Even with these caveats, a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile would still represent a substantial challenge to shipboard air defences. It travels substantially faster than most cruise missiles, and would be spotted far closer to a ship than a comparably fast anti-ship ballistic missile, which flies on a much higher trajectory.
Has Russia Really Fielded the Zircon?
The first question is whether Russia has in fact achieved an operational hypersonic cruise missile, a capability which has proven difficult to field even for the US. Given the history of Russian and Soviet leaders exaggerating the capabilities at their disposal to strengthen their diplomatic hands, this should be considered. Official Russian footage of claimed test launches that were later identified as other missiles such as the P-800 might further raise eyebrows.
The speed with which the 3M22 was realised could raise questions. The idea of a missile like the Zircon was first discussed in 2011, and the missile was being flight-tested in 2015. By 2018, according to Russian news outlets, it had been flight-tested 10 times. In 2019, President Vladimir Putin described the missile as having a speed of Mach 8 and a range of 1,000 km. Shortly after this, in January 2020, the Zircon was tested from a project 22350 Gorshkov-class frigate, with a total of four tests from frigates occurring in 2020. In October 2021, the missile was tested for the first time from a Yasen-class submarine, and by 2022, following additional tests, it was reported that the Zircon would be fielded operationally. This very rapid development cycle stands in contrast to missiles like the KH-32, a project from the 1980s that was realised in 2016. Furthermore, there appear to be no reported test failures, which is irregular for a new missile, especially one as complex as a hypersonic cruise missile. If the missile had been through a rigorous process before being fielded, a longer development cycle with more failures might have been expected.
However, the timeline from development to operational fielding does conform to those for missiles like the P-800 Oniks, which saw initial development in 1993 and was fielded in 2002. Furthermore, the missile was described by Admiral Nikolai Yemenov as having ‘childhood diseases’, so it may well be that test failures did occur but were not reported. Finally, there may well have been efforts towards the end of the Soviet era to develop hypersonic cruise missiles in the form of the KH-90 under the Raduga design bureau, so some of the speed of development may simply reflect stored corporate knowledge in the Russian system.
The missile represents the latest development in a long game of evolution and counter-evolution between missile-centric Russian forces and Western navies
The second question is whether the missile meets its described specifications – which if Putin is to be believed include the ability to carry a 300 kg warhead at a Mach 9 speed over up to 1,000 km. At first blush, this appears highly questionable for a number of reasons. First, the length of the missile is comparable to the Oniks, and yet it is described as having over twice the range. This despite the fact that, when other parameters like the amount of fuel are equal, speed and range are inversely correlated. The faster the missile, the faster the rate of combustion and thus the lower the range. Of course, other factors could explain this. The missile could be more aerodynamically efficient than the Oniks, for example. It could also be the case, as Russian officers have claimed, that the fuel mix on the Zircon is vastly more efficient than other missiles. That said, initial claims of the missile flying around 400 km at Mach 6 or so during flight tests seem more credible than Putin’s assertions. A second question that emerges concerns the missile’s payload. The missile is described as having a warhead comparable to the Oniks even though, as a hypersonic cruise missile, it needs to use room for both an initial rocket booster and a scramjet. The X-51A, for example, was a packed vehicle with little room for anything else. The Zircon is much larger than the X-51A, but it is still unusual that it can fit a warhead comparable to a missile like the Oniks, as well as everything else it needs to operate, without being substantially larger than the Oniks. However, one cannot preclude Russia’s institutional abilities in innovative missile design providing an explanation. Notably, foreign sources such as the US defence intelligence agency have long discussed the Zircon as a credible capability that was likely to be fielded soon. As such, while there remain certain unknowns regarding the combat effectiveness of the Zircon, on balance it is more likely than not to be an operational capability as the Russians claim.
How Does This Change Things?
Fielding the Zircon will do little to change Russia’s immediate fortunes in its ongoing war. The vessels carrying the missile cannot be redeployed to the theatre of combat around Ukraine via the Bosporus and, moreover, even if they were, there are few targets within Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure that would justify the use of limited numbers of likely very expensive missiles. Russia’s recent missile campaign, mixing low-cost Shahed 136 UAVs with cruise missiles, has reflected a desire to minimise expenditure on expensive and difficult-to-replace capabilities.
At a wider level, the missile represents the latest development in a long game of evolution and counter-evolution between missile-centric Russian forces and Western navies. In the 1980s, for example, the US adapted to the threat of cruise missile-equipped Tu-22M3 bombers by equipping the F-14 with the long-range AIM-54 missile to hold bombers at threat. In turn, the Soviets developed longer-range cruise missiles, which forced the US navy to develop Aegis-equipped destroyers to intercept missiles which could not always be neutralised by shooting down the bomber launching them. The hypersonic cruise missile and the evolutions it will drive are the latest iteration of this process. While capable against air defences, and launched from increasingly lethal platforms like the quiet Yasen class, some of the physical limitations of these missiles should be borne in mind. They are not necessarily Wunderwaffen. Notably, some of these physical limitations are less salient against hardened ground targets such as command posts and ammunition depots – and if launched from submarines that slipped through the GIUK gap, these missiles could approach their targets from unexpected vectors. Again, however, this reinforces the need to track Russian submarines in peacetime and war – which has long been a core NATO mission in any case.
A final consideration is Russia’s ability to produce and field a capability like Zircon at scale, especially as the programme will compete for financial and other resources with priorities like rebuilding the Russian ground forces.
As such, then, the operational deployment of the Zircon is an important development, but one whose significance should not be exaggerated.
This article is part of the Russia Military Report series.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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