The Russian Navy is arming its attack submarines with a first-of-its-kind submarine-launched hypersonic missile engineered to travel 600 miles at Mach 8 speeds toward ship targets at sea as well as fixed land targets within range.
The addition of the missile, which is now reported to be in testing for deployment, is now taking place as part of Russia’s Project 949AM submarine modernization effort arming the Irkutsk submarine for hypersonic attack by 2023, according to a report from Russia’s TASS news agency. The new missile is called the 3M22 Tsirkon, according to the TASS report.
Hypersonic sub-launched cruise missiles would change the threat envelope rather substantially by enabling Russian submarines to launch long-range rapid strikes from hidden undersea locations. A missile traveling Mach 8 could travel hundreds of miles in minutes and attack otherwise unreachable targets. Land-fired ballistic missiles, or even cruise missiles, for example, run the risk of being picked up by enemy radar in flight, depending upon trajectory and how far away it is launched from. A missile firing from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization-ally in Europe to Russia, at existing speeds, would naturally be much more likely to be detected and intercepted than a submarine-launched hypersonic attack from the ocean. Furthermore, undersea attack might in many instances enable the attacking force to operate much closer to targets simply too far to reach or otherwise inaccessible through land-launch.
Submarine-fired hypersonic missiles of this nature would also bring new dimensions to massive “blue-water” warfare on the open ocean in any kind of great power engagement. Using an undersea launch point to avoid immediate detection, an attack submarine could use hypersonic missiles to target surface ships operating hundreds of miles away, a dynamic which could in theory hold U.S. Navy Carrier Strike Groups at risk of a catastrophic attack. Unless, of course, Navy surface ships were armed with super-high-speed, AI-enabled tracking radar technologies aligned with fire-control technology engineered to fire off defensive interceptor missiles in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps U.S. Navy ships themselves could fire offensive or defensive hypersonic missile attacks. While there is little to no available information about whether the U.S. Navy is developing a comparable submarine-launched hypersonic strike technology, it certainly does possible, given the current accelerated push with which all the major services are testing and preparing hypersonic weapons.
What all of this amounts to is the concept of “warfare at speed,” meaning any decision-cycle timeframe from attack or, conversely, any defensive maneuver or response to an attack, is quickly being massively truncated. This reality, well known by U.S. weapons developers, fuels the vigorous ongoing push for AI-enabled weapons and sensors systems along with fast-arriving hypersonic missiles. The faster sensors can detect, track and organize incoming threat data for human commanders, the better the prospects of survival. Ground or ship-based radar is fundamental to this as longer-range, more sensitive detection systems can locate attacks and inform commanders at exponentially faster speeds. This will be necessary to meet the more serious threats now presented by new Russian and Chinese weapons, such as the Russian Tsirkon.
It certainly seems plausible that these kinds of threats may be one reason why the U.S. Navy is moving to quickly arm its surface fleet with a new generation of highly-sensitive, long-range SPY-6 radar variants, emerging systems able to find and help destroy enemy threat objects at twice the distance and half the size of current radar technologies.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.