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Tsirkon: The Russian Navy Will Soon Have a Mach 8 Hypersonic Missile

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

Russia Promises Rapid Deployment of Tsirkon Antiship Missile System – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech on Russia’s Navy Day on July 31 was used to tout the strength of Russian Navy, from its foundation by Peter the Great to the present day. In that vein, Putin promised that Russia’s Tsirkon missile, which was reportedly in production at the time of the speech, would be deployed within a month to active service in the Russian navy.

Development of the Tsirkon

Russia’s 3M22 Tsirkon, which is also referred to as the “Zircon,” is a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile that has been under development since 2011. An April 15, 2017 test of the missile was billed by Russian media sources as a major breakthrough in the system’s development in which the missile reached a maximum speed of Mach 8. While some information had been allowed to trickle out of Russia before 2018, it was not until shortly after President Vladimir Putin’s 2018 state-of-the-nation speech that the Tsirkon’s details were revealed and the missile increasingly became a posturing tool for the Kremlin. In that speech, Putin unveiled several other novel weapons, including the hypersonic Avangard glide vehicle, hypersonic Kinzhal air-launched cruise missile, Sarmat ICBM, and Poseidon nuclear torpedo, but did not mention the Tsirkon.

With development of hypersonic weapons increasingly prioritized by Russian military leaders following its intervention in the Syrian Civil War, testing of the Tsirkon began occurring at a rapid tempo, with several tests reportedly taking place in 2021. One of these was the Tsirkon’s first test from a submarine (the Yasen-class Severodvinsk), which occurred in October 2021. Previously, the Tsirkon had been reportedly test-fired from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov in 2020 and 2021. In August 2021, the Russian Ministry of Defense signed a contract for the production and delivery of the missile, indicating that it was nearing production.

What is the Tsirkon?

Since most of what we know about the Tsirkon missile is based on information that has been allowed to trickle out of Russia, much of what can be put together by outside observers is based on conjecture. The Tsirkon is designed to be so fast that it cannot be intercepted, which President Putin highlighted in his 2018 state-of-the-nation and 2022 Navy Day speeches. Propelled by a scramjet engine, estimates of the range of the Tsirkon have a wide distribution – observers believe that the missile could have a range of anywhere between 400 to 1,000 kilometers. If one is to take the Tsirkon’s reported capabilities at face value, systems designed to track and destroy subsonic missiles could struggle to track and target the missile.

Future of the Tsirkon

Designed and produced by NPO Mashinostroyeniya, the Tsirkon reportedly has a sister missile: the Indian BrahMos-II. The original BrahMos is a joint project of NPO Mashinostroyeniya  and India’s Defence Research and Development Organization. According to Russian state media and the CEO of the joint venture charged with developing the BrahMos series of missiles, the BrahMos-II will reportedly heavily draw on technology used in the Tsirkon and will have the same specifications as the Tsirkon. Assuming the BrahMos-II will be marketed similarly to the first BrahMos, it is likely that the BrahMos-II will be exported to third countries.

Russian sources reported that the Tsirkon began production in November of 2021. If this is true, it is entirely possible that the first quantity of Tsirkons will enter Russian service on the timeline offered by President Putin. However, given their anti-ship designation, the system will most likely not see active usage in Russia’s war against Ukraine, as the Admiral Gorshkov, which Putin said will receive the first Tsirkons, is in service with Russia’s Northern Fleet.

Russia is more likely to continue to use its legacy anti-ship missiles to strike ground targets in Ukraine rather than its newest hypersonic anti-ship missiles.

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill as well as in the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

Written By

Wesley Culp is a Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. He regularly writes on Russian and Eurasian leadership and national security topics and has been published in The Hill and the Diplomatic Courier. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.