Russia’s hypersonic Tsirkon cruise missile inches ever closer to deployment, with defense officials announcing a timetable for its final trials and subsequent entry into service.
Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko announced late last month that the Tsirkon missile is on the verge of completing state trials. “These positive results,” he said, in reference to prior Tsirkon tests, “make it possible to begin the next trial stage: firing from submarine carriers.”
3M22 Tsirkon, also known as Zircon (North Atlantic Treaty Organization reporting name SS-N-33) is a winged, hypersonic anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile that entered testing and development in the early 2010s. There is some recent indication, offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the late 2019, that a land-based Tsirkon variant is being developed, but the missile seems to be primarily intended as a submarine and surface ship-launched weapon. Tsirkon previously suffered from what one Russian official described as unspecified “teething problems,” but the missile’s development cycle appears to have gotten back on track in recent years. Tsirkon has undergone a flurry of fire tests in 2020, conducted from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov. That warship is the lead ship of the Admiral Gorshkov class, a line of fifteen modernized Russian guided-missile frigates.
Over the course of at least four tests, it was reported that Tsirkon is capable of hitting targets at a speed of over “over eight Mach” or around 9800 kilometers per hour. Tsirkon’s operational range remains something of a mystery, with estimates ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 kilometers depending on external circumstances. Russian analysts posit that the missile’s sheer speed and alleged ability to maneuver mid-flight will pose a credible threat to NATO’s carrier strike groups. Prior reports suggested that the missile boasts “plasma stealth” technology, generating a continuous plasma cloud to absorb radio waves as it moves. It would make Tsirkon essentially invisible to most radar systems, but this should be taken with a grain of salt in the absence of reliable corroborating information. Experts have noted certain design similarities between Tsirkon and Brahmos II, an upcoming hypersonic cruise missile being jointly developed by Russia and India, with some going as far as to suggest that the latter is the export derivative of the former.
Tsirkon is compatible with a wide catalog of Russian surface ships, ranging from Russia’s modernized corvette classes to such behemoths as the Kirov-class Piotr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov battlecruisers. It was previously suggested that Piotr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov, will be modernized with a mix of Kalibr, Oniks, and Tsirkon missiles to replace their older stock of P-700 Granit missiles. In addition, these two warships will be among the first in line for the Tsirkon missile upgrade.
Full performance compatibility with certain submarines is an important next step for the Tsirkon missile, which is expected to enter service after 2022. The full extent of the Russian navy’s submarine plans for Tsirkon have yet to be revealed, but likely Tsirkon fittings include the new nuclear powered Yasen-class cruise missile submarines.
Mark Episkopos is the new national security reporter for the National Interest.