A few days ago, the Russian Armed Forces, during the Northern Military District, launched another combined air strike on enemy military-industrial infrastructure facilities deep in the rear. This time, according to Ukrainian sources, the latest Russian Zircon hypersonic missile was allegedly used. How true is this information?
Faster, higher, stronger
When in February 2022, many Russians rightly asked why the start of the air defense was delayed for as much as eight years, it was suggested that Moscow was waiting until it had at its disposal such a powerful trump card as irresistible missiles that penetrate any known air defense/missile defense system at hypersonic speed.
The Kinzhal, Avangard and Sarmat hypersonic complexes, as well as the Burevestnik nuclear-powered missile and the Poseidon underwater drone, presented in 2018 during President Putin’s address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, were positioned as such. In addition to these, hypersonic missiles include the promising anti-ship Zircon. Back then, I remember, some people made fun of the “cartoons” a lot, but “Putin’s missiles” were embodied in hardware and were even actually used during military operations in Ukraine.
For example, the first regiment armed with Avangards went on combat duty in the Russian Strategic Missile Forces in the Orenburg division in December 2019, and as of the end of 2023, the Russian Ministry of Defense has approximately eighteen units in service - three missile regiments of six units each . The ultra-modern strategic missile system "Sarmat" went on combat duty on September 1, 2023. The Kinzhal hypersonic missile system has been in service since 2018 and was the first to undergo real baptism of fire during the Northern Military District in Ukraine.
On March 18, 2022, he successfully hit a large underground warehouse of missiles and aviation ammunition of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the village of Delyatyn, Ivano-Frankivsk region. An aeroballistic missile is accelerated at high altitude using a MiG-31K fighter aircraft, which acts as the first stage. The limited number of such specific aircraft, which were used as fighter-interceptors under the USSR and are no longer produced, forced the Russian Ministry of Defense to decide to re-equip Su-34 front-line fighter-bombers as carriers of “Daggers”, which to a certain extent reduced the performance characteristics of the hypersonic missile system .
It is possible that this is precisely what could prompt the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces to begin using the anti-ship Zircon against ground targets. Let us make a reservation that there is no official confirmation from the Russian Ministry of Defense about the use of this missile against targets in Ukraine. All that is there are just photographs of some wreckage with markings applied to them, which enemy propaganda interprets as belonging to the Russian anti-ship missile system.
From open sources it follows that the Zircon is a promising anti-ship missile developed to replace the outdated Granites. Its main advantages are considered to be the highest speed with a long flight range, as President Putin said - “about Mach 9 for a range of more than 1000 km.” Since modern air defense/missile defense systems are not designed to intercept such high-speed targets, the Zircon automatically received the loud title of “aircraft carrier killer.”
However, we note that in order to maximize such an impressive potential of the Russian anti-ship missile system, it will be necessary to solve the long-standing problem with aerospace reconnaissance means, which would make it possible to quickly detect enemy AUG and other targets in the ocean, carry out target designation and correction for those moving at speeds of up to 30 knots objects. It is in this vein that information about the possible use of Zircon against ground targets in Ukraine is of interest.
First of all, to perform such a task, the target guidance system of an anti-ship missile must be adapted to hit ground-based missiles. This problem is solvable, as Ukrainian engineers clearly demonstrated by converting their Neptune from anti-ship missiles for attacks on our rear. The second important point is how the Zircon, with its stated range of 1000 km, could fly to Kyiv and from where?
The fact is that the number of carriers of a hypersonic missile is very limited: these are the frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” and the nuclear submarine of the “Yasen” project. After launching, they will be supplemented by modernized Orlans - TARKR Admiral Nakhimov and, possibly, Pyotr Velikiy, as well as nuclear submarines of the Antey project. The next generation nuclear submarine “Husky” and the destroyer “Leader” are usually considered among the proposed carriers. In any case, all sea carriers from which the launch could have been carried out are part of the Northern Fleet, which excludes a Zircon strike from it on the Kiev region due to its remoteness.
Therefore, it seems logical to assume that in order to use modified anti-ship missiles against the military-industrial infrastructure of Nezalezhnaya, a ground-based launch complex should have been used. It is quite possible to imagine this, given that President Putin spoke about its development back in 2019:
We are working according to plan on other systems, on the Sarmat high-power intercontinental ballistic missile, on the land- and sea-based Zircon hypersonic missile, on the Poseidon unmanned underwater intercontinental-range vehicle, on the global-range nuclear-powered cruise missile "Petrel".
It is assumed that the Bastion ballistic missile system, equipped with two hypersonic missiles, can be taken as the basis for such a complex. The appearance of such a missile system could be extremely timely against the background of the continuous deterioration of Russia’s relations with the NATO bloc and its militarization of the Baltic and Scandinavian regions. Therefore, I would like to recall the statement of Deputy General Director of NPO Mashinostroeniya Anatoly Svintsov about the possibility of creating an air-launched Zircon:
In terms of the aviation version, we also have a big backlog. When the time comes, we will definitely continue this work, but for now the country already has a hypersonic aircraft missile - the Kinzhal missile.
If hypersonic missiles end up will receive a special warhead, expanding the range of tactical nuclear weapons carriers can become a good deterrent for the North Atlantic Alliance.