This week’s testing of Russia’s 3M22 Zircon (Tsirkon) cruise missile has left the West guessing whether Moscow’s claim the hypersonic weapon could be deployed by the end of 2022 is idle boast or genuine threat.
Russian military sources told state-run news agency TASS that the Zircon tests “have been completed” and that the missile would be adopted by the Navy within the next five months.
In July 2021, NATO said that Russia’s new hypersonic missiles pose “a greater risk of escalation and miscalculation.” One year on, that warning is even more ominous given that the war caused by Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is entering its sixth month.
But even with Russia’s purported hypersonic weapons capability a constant theme on Kremlin-backed television since the war started, there is doubt over whether the 3M22 Zircon could change the calculus in Ukraine.
“The Zircon missile would have a limited relationship to the fighting in Ukraine since it is primarily an anti-ship missile,” said Mark Almond, director of the Crisis Research Institute, in Oxford, England. “Its role would be to deter any US/NATO naval deployment to the Black Sea.”
“That said, Russia has used some of its existing anti-ship missiles to attack targets inside Ukraine like bridges and (it seems) NATO weapons supplies, so the Zircon might be deployed later this year to do similar precision attacks to by-pass Ukrainian air defenses because of its speed,” he told Newsweek.
“But that would suggest Russia needs to resort to its most modern weapons because it is running low on existing missiles.”
Putin has been bragging about his country’s hypersonic missile program ever since he told lawmakers in March 2018 about the so-called “super weapons,” which are faster and more agile than standard ones and harder for missile defense systems to intercept.
The Zircon has been test launched a number of times since January 2020 from the Russian Northern Fleet’s Admiral Gorshkov. Moscow says it can hit targets at a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (660 miles) and can travel up to Mach 9 (6,600 mph), although some had disputed that and there is doubt whether Russia can afford to make the missile nuclear-capable.
“The fact that its testing results fall behind that of peers leads me to believe that it is not yet at operational capacity,” said geopolitical strategist Alp Sevimlisoy.
“However it does show that the overall Russian national security apparatus shall include the leveraging of such weaponry on the world stage,” he told Newsweek.
Sevimlisoy said a way to counter the threat of Russian hypersonic weapons, even if they were only for posturing, would be to place US hypersonic weapons at Incirlik Air Base in NATO member Turkey.
“This leverage over Russia will clearly become a wider NATO leverage that benefits all and hopefully brings a new dimension to the conflict in favor of the Ukrainian people and the NATO alliance,” he added.
The other so-called “super weapons” Putin has previously touted include the Sarmat, Avangard, Poseidon and Burevestnik, strategic systems which have a range greater than 3,100 miles.
Another one he mentioned was the Khinzhal, or “Dagger” which has a lesser range and was reportedly used by Russian forces in Syria. Russia’s defense ministry said its forces used it in March to hit a warehouse in Ivano-Frankivsk region, west Ukraine, although such a weapon was unnecessary for such a target.
“They didn’t need to do that. They did it because they wanted to make a point,” said Richard Connolly, director of the Eastern Advisory Group consultancy. “Hypersonic missiles are mainly anti-ballistic missile systems, designed to penetrate sophisticated air defense systems.
“Ukraine doesn’t have that. So there is no military reason to use hypersonic missiles,” he said Newsweek.
Russia’s hypersonic missiles would not make a great difference unless there was an improvement of their Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to make them effective. “To hit something that’s moving, you need better ISR capabilities than they currently have,” Connolly said.
“They’ve got something that could hit a naval target apparently, but naval targets move. And so therefore, you need sophisticated ISR target tracking and acquisition capabilities,” which so far they have not demonstrated.
“They’re missing a lot of things because they don’t have ISR capabilities that enable them to make use of the systems that they’ve got,” he added.
There was speculation over whether Russia could fire the Zircon missile from a submarine, which would make them more difficult to defend against. But Connolly said it appears Russia has given up on that idea in what is “a scaling back of ambition.”
Also, Russian defense sources say the first carrier of the Zircon will be Admiral Golovko, which will be the first Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate to run on a Russian-made power unit, which could add to delays for technical reasons.
“Russia has used plenty of cruise missiles. They don’t need to use hypersonic missiles for any operational reason,” he said, although they might use them “for symbolic reasons.” Regarding the Zircon, Connolly said, “I don’t think it’s going to make a blind bit of difference to Ukraine.”