The Russian Defense Ministry announced on Tuesday that it has signed its first contract for the delivery of Tsirkon missiles to Russia’s military. “A government contract on the delivery of the 3M22 missile (the Tsirkon hypersonic missile) has been signed. The contract has been handed to CEO of the Research and Production Association of Machine-Building Alexander Leonov at the [Army-2021] international military-technical forum," according to the Defense Ministry’s press statement.
Leonov confirmed the news on the sidelines of the ARMY 2021 defense exhibition, adding that "the contract on Tsirkon missiles will be fulfilled by 2025. The missile has been standardized and can be used both from surface ships and submarines. The only difference is in the launcher used on surface ships or submarines.” Top Russian officials previously posited that the military could begin taking serial Tsirkon deliveries as early as 2022, but Leonov’s phrasing— “by 2025”— suggests that this timeline may prove too optimistic.
The statement did not specify which Russian vessels will be getting the vaunted Tsirkon upgrade first. But, according to earlier reports sourced by statements from anonymous Russian defense industry insiders, the honor will go to Admiral Golovko—the third frigate of the Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov class. Tsirkon is likely to eventually make its way to numerous ships in Russia’s naval roster, including the Kirov-class battlecruisers Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov, as well as the modernized Admiral Grigorovich-class frigates and the Karakurt/Buyan/Gremyashchiy-class corvettes. The missile will also figure prominently into the offensive capabilities of Russia’s new Yasen-M class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines, seven of which are expected to enter service through 2028. Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to suggest in late 2019 that a land-based Tsirkon variant is in the works, but all current signs point to Tsirkon being a ship and submarine-launched weapon for the foreseeable future.
3M22 Tsirkon (also known as “Zircon”) is a winged, anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile that is reportedly capable of reaching speeds of up to Mach 8-9 and maneuvering in mid-flight to evade enemy air defenses. The missile boasts an effective operating range of around 1,000 km, though its precise reach reportedly depends on whether it is engaging ground or naval targets. Russian military observers have projected confidence that Tsirkon can credibly hold American Carrier Strike Groups (CSG’s) at risk and impede the U.S. Navy’s current carrier wings from operating effectively.
Previously derailed by unspecified technical problems encountered in development, the Tsirkon has gotten back on track with a flurry of reportedly successful launch tests—many of which were conducted from the lead Project 22350 ship Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov—in 2020 and 2021. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko said earlier this month that Russia plans to wrap up the Tsirkon missile’s state trials in 2021. Defense sources told TASS state news that the missile’s first test launches from the Yasen-class Severodvinsk submarine are planned for September, before the White Sea freezes.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.