In March of 2018, President Putin made a series of surprising announcements regarding the incredible advances in hypersonic flight technology achieved by Russian engineers and scientists. The Avangard and Kinzhal missiles were both discussed at that time, respectively, Mach 20- and Mach 10-capable systems that were both able to alter course in flight, defeating any and all known anti-missile systems, anywhere. But the Tsirkon (neé Zircon) was not discussed much until very recently, and in the 2019 State of the Nation address, the President talked about this system at length:
Another promising innovation, which is successfully being developed according to plan, is Tsirkon, a hypersonic missile that can reach speeds of approximately Mach 9 and strike a target more than 1,000 km away both under water and on the ground. It can be launched from water, from surface vessels and from submarines, including those that were developed and built for carrying Kalibr high-precision missiles, which means it comes at no additional cost for us.
This was the first time the new missile platform really assumed front and center stage. Vesti Nedeliy ran with the claims that the President made about this missile’s capabilities, and constructed a rather frightening fantasy situation about how Russia could use this system to completely disable US command-and-control facilities a mere six minutes from launch.
While much of the media sensationalism is still, thankfully, very far from being the reality of armed conflict between the US and the Russian Federation, the fact remains that President Putin sees American encroachment around his country as a problem on many levels: multiple treaty violations, manipulation of circumstances and language for the US to justify building what amounts to a containing “ring” around Russia, and the ongoing cultural attacks from the West against his country, who, having suffered the effects of a strictly secular ideology under communism, is interested in regaining some semblance of the Byzantine Christian empire it once was.
To that end, the Russian leadership embarked on a very ambitious project and leaped past the West in the development of hypersonic missiles. Here is what we know about this new entry in the line-up.
The 3M22 Tsirkon is a sea-launched scramjet-powered missile. Its range is rather short relative to its massive speed. Early reports indicated that the missile’s operational range was only about 186 miles (300km), but present information suggests far more than this, at about 1,000km range or 600 miles.
The scramjet engine is capable of sustaining flight at the amazing speed (in atmosphere) of Mach 7, or some 5,328 mph (8,575 km/h), or about 1.8 miles per second. This is a significant fraction of orbital speed (Mach 25), and atmospheric flight at this speed creates thermal problems which the Russians claim to have overcome through their materials engineering.
An interesting note from the video above says that while in flight, the Tsirkon is completely surrounded by plasma, air that is superheated beyond the point where air molecules can remain intact, so the resulting plasma is electrically charged and creates a stealth effect, making the missiles invisible to radar. (However, the heat generated could certainly be detected by infra-red equipment).
The great speed of this missile means that it can get past present-day antimissile systems, even the Mach-4 capable Patriot ABM system. Additionally for the Tsirkon, launch-to-target distances are short, at under 600 miles by present reckonings (the video here shows a much lower range). While the missile cannot spend all its flight time at top speed, the delivery time for such a weapon at maximum range is probably about seven and a half minutes or less.
Vesti and other Russian sources advertise a time-on-target rating of just five minutes from a sea-launch 300 miles off the US coast to the Pentagon. This missile is definitely fast.
We have written before at The Duran about the Russian concept of defense, compared with that of the American forces at this time. While the American military machine is truly massive, with overwhelming force in terms of men and machinery, the concept also includes expendability of both. A massive battlefront would suffer massive losses, but the sheer quantity of forces ought to be able to overwhelm an adversary force.
This was the idea behind the “Shock and Awe” sensationalist campaign that characterized the second Iraq War. But the Russians have a new approach.
This approach relies on a relatively small number of “unstoppable” weapons, such as the hypersonic Avangard, Kinzhal and Tsirkon, as well as a few truly doomsday weapons platforms like the Poseidon underwater drone, capable of detonating a 100 MT nuke underwater to create an artificial tsunami that could take out hundreds of coastal miles in one strike.
The idea is a new feature in the arms race, though in this case, Russia claims aggrieved status more often than not, since the country is not active in any sort of nation-building (or destroying) military action.
War is madness, but it is often madness in response to an attacker’s madness. And while the Russian President is far from a warmonger, his quiet but firm warnings to the West are beginning to be be heard.