In a Tweet, Russia’s Ministry of Defense released footage of a hypersonic missile test-launch. The test, which took place somewhere in the Barents Sea, was the first time that Russia’s hypersonic Tsirkon (alternatively translated as Zirkon) missile had been tested against an ocean target.
In the video, the Russian Naval Frigate Gorshkov fires the missile while underway. Due to heavy cloud cover, the missile’s trajectory was obfuscated, though what could be seen of the launch appeared to confirm the Russian MoD’s statements.
According to Russian sources, the hypersonic Tsirkon missile is capable of flying in excess of Mach 8, or eight times the speed of sound. Although not necessarily more powerful armed than conventional missiles, a hypersonic missile’s destructive potential is derived from their mind-numbingly high speeds. At hypersonic speeds, the missile’s kinetic energy alone could in some cases be greater than a conventional warhead.
In addition to greater destructive power, hypersonic missiles are exceedingly difficult to counter thanks to their high speeds. Reaction time against hypersonic missiles is often reduced to minutes, significantly hindering a successful defense.
The Steady March Onward
Previously, the Russian Ministry of Defense had expressed their intent to arm some submarines with Tsirkon missile variants capable of bingeing launched underwater. If this initiative proves to be successful, it would make Russia the only country with an underwater hypersonic missile capability.
It is not the first time that the missile has been tested at sea. Earlier this year, the Russian state media group Tass reported that the missile was tested from the same Russian frigate, though that earlier launch was against land targets.
Looks Can Be Deceiving
Still, not all may be as it seems. As several Twitter users pointed out, the video of the launch might actually be two or more videos spliced together. In particular, some drew issue with the video’s initial close-up shot of the missile leaving the ship’s vertical launch cell and pointed out that the missile’s shape was rather different from expected.
Though speculative, some suspect that the video montage may be an attempt by Russia to demonstrate the missile’s efficacy while keeping important details about the missile, such as its general shape, a secret.
In a Kremlin publication from the day of the launch, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the successful launch was a significant event “not only in the life of the Armed Forces, but also in the whole of Russia, the whole country, since the equipping of our Armed Forces - the army and fleet - the newest, really unparalleled in the world, weapons systems certainly and in the long term ensures the defense capability of our state.”
Though the precise capabilities of the Tsirkon program remain unknown, if true it would represent a real threat to Russia’s enemies. Watch this topic closely for further future details.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.