The Russian Navy may finally test-launch its Tsirkon hypersonic missile from a submarine testbed, a key development milestone on the new weapon’s long road to serial production readiness.
“The Tsirkon may be test-launched for the first time from the [Northern Fleet’s nuclear-powered submarine] Severodvinsk in June as the earliest date,” a defense industry insider source told the Russian state news outlet TASS earlier this month. The source added that there is “there is no exact date for the start of trials so far,” suggesting that these plans have yet to be finalized.
TASS likewise reported that the Navy has decided to fast-track the remainder of Tsirkon’s state trials. An insider source described a frenzied testing schedule for the new missile: “The frigate will test-fire the hypersonic weapon twice during the year as part of flight development tests and up to four times as part of state joint trials. Simultaneously, the Tsirkon’s flight development tests from the submarine will begin in summer. Up to four launches are expected to be made, the first of which will be performed from the surface position. In autumn, state trials from the [submarine] Severodvinsk will begin.” According to TASS’ source, the Navy aims to accept the Tsirkon missile into service next year: “In case of their success from both types of carriers, the Tsirkon is expected to be accepted for service in the first half of 2022.”
3M22 Tsirkon, also known as Zircon (North Atlantic Treaty Organization reporting name SS-N-33) is a winged, anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile that entered development in the 2010s. Russian officials previously noted that the missile suffered from unspecified “teething problems” during previous research and development work, but the project appears to have gotten back on track with a flurry of successful tests. The full extent of Tsirkon’s capabilities remains unclear. According to reports based on prior testing data, the missile is capable of reaching speeds from Mach 8 to Mach 9. The missile’s operational range may vary depending on the launch platform and certain battlefield circumstances, with current estimates hovering between one thousand to two thousand kilometers. The missile’s sheer speed and purported ability to maneuver mid-flight could credibly threaten NATO assets; in particular, Russian military experts argue that ship and submarine-launched Tsirkon missiles can be a potent counter to U.S. carrier strike groups (CSG’s).
Early Tsirkon tests were conducted from the Tu-22M3 bomber and there was some subtle indication that a land-based Tsirkon variant is in the works, but all current signs point to the missile being launched mainly from submarines and surface ships. At least several Project 22350 frigates, including Admiral Amelko and Admiral Chichagov, will reportedly be outfitted with Tsirkon missiles. Other contenders include the older Kirov-class Piotr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov battlecruisers, as well as Russia’s modernized corvette lines.
There have been at least four Tsirkon launch tests in recent years, but these were reportedly conducted from the Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov. A submarine launch is a crucial step on the missile’s road to deployment readiness, as the new hypersonic missile is expected to figure prominently into the combat capabilities of Russia’s new Yasen class of nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.