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Meet Russia’s New Mach 9 Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile: Built for World War III?

Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile
Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile: How Dangerous Is it?  – As noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer pointed out in November 2021, “President Vladimir Putin declared that if the West deploys missiles to Ukraine that could reach Moscow ‘in five to ten minutes,’ Russia is ready to counter by deploying a ‘new naval hypersonic missile, which may reach [Western] decision-makers in 5 minutes, flying at Mach 9 speed.’ (Militarynews.ruNovember 30).” (Emphasis added). Russia’s new nuclear-capable naval hypersonic missile [the Tsirkon] was hyped by Putin as having a speed of Mach 9,” stating that it would become operational in 2022.

The context of Putin’s statement was preparations for a Russian invasion of Ukraine, not NATO missile deployments. Nine days after Putin’s nuclear threat, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned about a Ukraine conflict becoming a new Cuban missile crisis. Ten days after Putin’s nuclear threat, Russian Chief of the General Staff General of the Army Valery Gerasimov declared, “…any provocations by the Ukrainian authorities to settle the Donbas difficulties militarily will be thwarted.”

Putin’s claimed timelines for U.S. missiles attacking Moscow from Ukraine are ridiculous. He said, “I will repeat this once again that the issue concerns the possible deployment in the territory of Ukraine of strike systems with the flight time of 7–10 minutes to Moscow or 5 minutes in the case of hypersonic systems.” Since the U.S. only has subsonic cruise missiles which travel at less than Mach 1, their flight time would have to be over five times greater than Mach 5 hypersonic missiles, and Mach 5 is only the threshold of hypersonic speed. What Putin was talking about had nothing to do with the deployment of U.S. missiles to Ukraine. However, it was apparently aimed at deterring any U.S. effort to support Ukraine against Russia, which was threatening an invasion through the threat of nuclear strikes against “decision-makers.”

The supposed U.S. deployment of missiles in Ukraine that could reach Moscow is purely fictional. It is literally a rehash of Soviet-era propaganda that the U.S. Pershing II non-strategic ballistic missile threatened Moscow. The Pershing II was designed to have insufficient range to attack Moscow. Its nuclear warhead was not capable of destroying hard and very deeply buried targets such as the Moscow bunkers. The penetrator warhead that could attack hard and very deeply buried bunkers was terminated in the FY1982 budget process. The U.S., at some point, may deploy conventional missiles (the distinction between conventional and nuclear-capable missiles is very important) in Europe to counter Russian nuclear-capable missiles that were originally deployed in violation of the INF Treaty.

However, Ukraine is the last place in Europe where they would be deployed. Moreover, Putin’s claim that the U.S. could attack Russia in five to ten minutes is bogus. This would require hypersonic speed. It would take about an hour for subsonic cruise missiles to reach Moscow from Ukraine. At a minimum, the U.S. is at least years away from the earliest availability of any type of hypersonic missile. Moscow was and is the most heavily defended city in the world; thus, existing subsonic missiles could be intercepted. Indeed, in April 2015, Major General Kuril Makarov, Deputy Commander of Russia’s Aerospace Forces Command, even claimed, “Moscow’s layered air defense grants 99% effective defense against air attack…” due to the deployment of S-400 and SA-20 defenses. In addition, conventional missiles cannot destroy hard and very deeply buried targets.

President Putin began to threaten attacks against the U.S. national leadership in 2019 in his annual State of the Nation address to the Russian Duma when he said that if the U.S. deployed missiles to Europe, “Russia will be forced to create and deploy weapons that can be used not only in the areas we are directly threatened from, but also in areas that contain decisionmaking centres for the missile systems threatening us,” and that their decision-makers should “…calculate the range and speed of our advanced weapon systems.”

What he meant was that the time required to get the President from the White House to Air Force One and outside of the nuclear blast radius from an attack on the White House was greater than the flight time of Russian nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles. A day after the Putin speech, the main government news agency TASS reported that “Putin cautions if threatened, Russia could target U.S. missiles ‘hosts’ and America as well.” (Emphasis in the original.) Numerous major news organizations interpreted his speech as saying, “…Russia will target [the] U.S. if it deploys missiles to Europe.” They did not pick up on his threat against the U.S. National Command Authority. 

Just after  Putin’s 2019 speech, “Russian state television … listed U.S. military facilities that Moscow would target in the event of a nuclear strike and said that a hypersonic missile Russia is developing would be able to hit them in less than five minutes. The targets included the Pentagon and the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland.” Just a few days after this, in an important speech, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, said Russia was forced to “…plan future delivery of strikes against decisionmaking centers….”

Just after Putin’s November 2021 hypersonic missile threat, Izvestia, a major Russian publication. reported that “Sources in the Defence Ministry told Izvestia that they plan to test the new weapon [the Tsirkon hypersonic missile] and also the methods of its employment within the Grom exercises.” Grom (Thunder) is a name given in 2019 to the annual Russian large strategic nuclear exercise. The Russians announced that Grom-2019 involved over half of Russian strategic nuclear forces and reportedly ended in a massive Russian nuclear strike. This year, Russia either did not hold this exercise or more likely did not announce it and refrained from the usual multiple strategic missile launches, which are a dead giveaway for this exercise. In October 2021 (October is the normal month for Grom), Russia exercised every element of the Russian Triad but conducted only one strategic missile launch.

Why Tsirkon Matters

The integration of the Tsirkon hypersonic missile in Grom-2022 would operationalize Putin’s hypersonic nuclear threats to our national command authority. The main role of Russian hypersonic missiles is not penetrating U.S. strategic missile defense, which is not a significant threat to Russian strategic nuclear forces, but rather to be able to destroy critical time urgent strategic and command and control facilities, exploiting the vulnerability of the U.S. nuclear command and control system. This is very dangerous because it could become the Russian theory of victory in a nuclear war. It is a very fragile theory of victory because if the effort to destroy our national command authority fails, rapid escalation of the conflict is likely. The political context of the threat – the threatened Russian invasion of Ukraine – makes it even more serious than the more routine Russian nuclear threats.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff. 

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