Russia has tested a new hypersonic anti-ship missile that can travel a blistering 6,138 miles an hour, or 1.7 miles a second. The missile, known as Zircon, will attack ships at sea and land-based targets. It is in all likelihood unstoppable by modern air defenses.
that Russia has tested the Zircon anti-ship missile five times, with the latest test occuring on December 10. The December test hit a top speed of Mach 8, or 6,138 miles an hour. CNBC quoted two anonymous U.S. government officials with direct knowledge of an intelligence report on the test. The latest test proved the Russians were capable of achieving sustained flight—a difficult goal in hypersonic flight research.
The network’s source also said that it was clear Zircon was being diversified away from being a purely anti-ship missile to also strike land targets. It is expected to enter production in 2021 and service with the Russian Navy in 2022.
Not much is known about Zircon. According to , development of the missile goes back to 2011. Under development by , it could be a domestic version of the Indian-Russian BrahMos II hypersonic missile system. Naval Technology claims the missile is known internally in Russia as 3K22 (the equivalent of calling a Sidewinder air-to-air missile the AIM-9X).
Naval Technology quotes BrahMos II as having a range of 300 kilometers, or 186 miles. That’s likely a number chosen in order for both countries to adhere to the , an international agreement which seeks to slow the spread of nuclear missile technology by limiting the range of exportable missiles capable of carrying one ton warheads to 186 miles. India and Russia are both MCTR signatories. Missiles built by either country for domestic use, however, would have no such range limitation.
According to Russian state media source TASS, Zircon is designed to launch from vertical launch silos on several types of Russian Navy ships, including the Corvettes and -class frigates. The battlecruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Pyotr Velikiy will also get Zircon during scheduled refits. Per , both battlecruisers should get the ability to launch up to ten Zircon missiles each.
The real threat, however, is from the Russian Navy’s new submarines. According to TASS the same vertical launch missile launchers that allow the Yasen class to carry up to 40 anti-ship missiles also allow the submarines to carry Zircon. Unlike surface ships, which could be tracked, a Yasen-class submarine could launch them from an unexpected location and direction.
This gets at the real problem behind Zircon: it’s probably impossible to shoot down at this point, and in a conflict with the U.S. Navy will likely penetrate American defenses and sink ships—if it works as advertised. Although the U.S. Navy has a variety of defenses, from SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors to SM-6 surface-to-air missiles, each is optimized against certain threats. While SM-3 can take on incoming ballistic missiles moving at a similar speed, it does so at the borders of space, far above Zircon’s likely flight profile. SM-6 can shoot down short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, anti-ship missiles and aircraft, but whether or not it can hit something moving at 1.7 miles a second is unknown.
So, existing missiles can each tackle part of the problem, but not the whole problem of tackling Zircon. U.S. missile defenses will likely need significant hardware and software upgrades to down an incoming Zircon. For now, the most effective means of neutralizing these hypersonic missiles is to destroy the platforms that carry them before launch.
Zircon’s warhead could have a high explosive warhead, nuclear warhead, or no warhead at all. An object smashing into a target at nearly two miles a second will do significant damage, so a 2,000 pound non-explosive tungsten “warhead” would probably be an effective anti-ship warhead. High explosive is always an option.
Where Zircon could really excel is as a nuclear weapon. Fired from a submarine off the Eastern Seaboard, a hypersonic missile could hit a target at 186 miles in just 109 seconds.
Zircon is just one example of a slew of hypersonic weapons under development by the U.S., Russia, and China. Hypersonic research is pushing the boundaries of known engineering and science, but it may be in everyone’s interest to ban their testing or deployment.