Improvements have been made.
Key point: Hypersonic missiles are better equipped to evade enemy air defenses because of their speed. With every great power working on such weapons, Russia is speeding ahead with its.
In a development reported by CNBC news and corroborated by Russian media, the Russian military test-launched its Tsirkon hypersonic missile: “over ten test launches have been performed against sea-based targets at a distance of several hundred kilometers,” a military insider told the TASS Russian News Agency. They added that Tsirkon “destroyed the designated naval targets at hypersonic speed,”
Development of the 3M22 Tsirkon was revealed in 2011, with a period of active testing beginning from 2015. It has an effective range of around 500 km, and is compatible with submarines, certain bomber aircraft, and a wide range of surface vessels.
Operational versatility is a core component of Tsirkon’s design. As one of CNBC’s sources put it: “What we are seeing with this particular weapon is that the Russians designed it to have a dual-purpose capability, meaning, it can be used against a target on land as well as a vessel at sea.” Early Tsirkon tests were conducted with the Tu-22M3 bomber, but its subsequent development pattern suggests that the Russian military’s first priority is to test and deploy Tsirkon as a seaborne weapon.
Tsirkon is being manufactured in compliance with Russia’s Universal Vertical Launching System (UKSK), a seaborne missile launcher platform that notably includes the Russian “Caliber” and Russian-Indian “BrahMos” missiles. In fact, Tsirkon shares so much design and performance DNA with the latter that it could be considered as a fully Russian-made modernization of BrahMos.
Tsirkon’s top speed was previously reported to be around Mach 6 or 7,400 km per hour, but CNBC’s sources state that the recently tested Tsirkon missiles reached a top speed of Mach 8 or 9,800 kilometers per hour. It is unclear whether this discrepancy comes from technical improvements, different Tsirkon models being simultaneously developed and tested, or misstatements about Tsirkon’s performance.
These latest tests were conducted from a coastal platform. Trials from military vessels are scheduled for 2019: “We plan to start state trials of Zircon missiles from ships and submarines…trials will be held at marine training ranges of the Pacific Fleet,” a source stated to Russian news.
The Kirov-class battlecruisers Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov are among the first in line to be outfitted with the new hypersonic missile. Other mounting options for the Tsirkon include Steregushchiy-class corvettes and Yasen-class submarines. Tsirkon is anticipated to be compatible with Russia’s upcoming Lider-class submarine line, slated for the mid 2020’s.
Exports plans for the 3M22 Tsircon have yet to be announced, but Russia is not exactly spoilt for choice. China is not only actively developing its own range of hypersonic missiles, but has exported advanced missiles in the past. Meanwhile, Russia and India are already engaged in several joint hypersonic missile ventures that include BrahMos II, the official successor to BrahMos. The almost identical performance specifications of BrahMos II and Tsirkon have invited speculation that Brahmos II is in fact the export version of Tsirkon.
Tsirkon’s latest round of testing is another episode in the ongoing cycle of NATO-Russian military buildup. These news come on the heels of the White House’s stated intent to withdraw from the INF Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning at a recent press conference that the threat of nuclear conflict “could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet.”
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor toThe National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University. This article first appeared in 2018.