Should we be worried about Putin’s hypersonic missiles?

Testing of Russia’s 3M22 Zircon (Tsirkon) cruise missiles this week has left the West wondering whether Moscow’s claim that the hypersonic weapon could be deployed by the end of 2022 is idle boasting or a genuine threat.

Russian military sources told the state news agency TASS that the Zircon tests were “complete” and that the missile would be adopted by the Navy within the next five months.

In July 2021, NATO said Russia’s new hypersonic missiles pose “a greater risk of escalation and miscalculation.” A year later, that warning is even more ominous as the war caused by Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine enters its sixth month.

But even if Russia’s alleged hypersonic weapon capability has been a constant theme on Kremlin-backed TV since the start of the war, there are doubts whether the 3M22 Zircon could change the calculus in Ukraine.

“The Zircon missile would have a limited relationship to the fighting in Ukraine because it is primarily an anti-ship missile,” said Mark Almond, director of the Crisis Research Institute in Oxford, England. “Your task would be to prevent any US/NATO naval deployment in the Black Sea.”

Russian missile
In this photo from video released by the Press Service of the Russian Defense Ministry on Monday, November 29, 2021, the Russian Navy’s frigate Admiral Gorshkov launches a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile in the White Sea. Russia has announced that the missile will enter service with the Russian Navy by the end of 2022.
Russian Defense Ministry press service via AP

“Nonetheless, Russia has used some of its existing anti-ship missiles to attack targets in Ukraine such as bridges and (it appears) NATO weapon stockpiles, so the Zircon could be deployed later this year to conduct similar precision strikes to to bypass Ukraine’s air defenses because of its speed,” he said news week.

“But that would indicate that Russia must resort to its most advanced weapons because it is running out of missiles it has.”

Putin has boasted about his country’s hypersonic missile program since he told lawmakers in March 2018 about the so-called “superweapons,” which are faster and more maneuverable than standard weapons and harder for missile defense systems to intercept.

The Zircon has been launched several times since January 2020 by Russia’s Northern Fleet for testing purposes Admiral Gorshkov. Moscow says it can hit targets at ranges of up to 1,000 kilometers (660 miles) and reach Mach 9 (6,600 miles per hour), although some have disputed this and there are doubts as to whether Russia can afford the missile to make it nuclear capable.

“The fact that its test results are lagging behind those of peers leads me to believe it’s not fully operational yet,” said geopolitical strategist Alp Sevimlisoy.

“However, it shows that the entire Russian national security apparatus will embrace the use of such weapons on the world stage,” he said news week.

Sevimlisoy said one way to counter the threat of Russian hypersonic weapons is to place US hypersonic weapons at Incirlik airbase in NATO member Turkey, even if it was just for posing.

“This influence on Russia is clearly becoming a greater influence of NATO, which will benefit everyone and hopefully add a new dimension to the conflict in favor of the Ukrainian people and the NATO alliance,” he added.

Other so-called “superweapons” Putin has previously touted include the Sarmat, Avangard, Poseidon and Burevestnik, strategic systems with a range of more than 3,100 miles.

Another he mentioned was the khinzhal, or “dagger,” which has a shorter 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 the Ivano-Frankivsk region of western Ukraine, even though such a weapon is unnecessary for such a target.

“They didn’t have to do that. They did it because they wanted to make a point,” said Richard Connolly, director of consulting firm Eastern Advisory Group. “Hypersonic missiles are primarily 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 news week.

Russia’s hypersonic missiles wouldn’t make much of a difference unless there was an upgrade in their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to make them effective. “To hit something that’s moving you need better ISR skills than they currently have,” Connolly said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin July 20, 2022 in Moscow, Russia. He has repeatedly boasted about his country’s hypersonic missile capabilities when Russia said it would equip the Zircon missile by the end of the year.
Getty Images

“They have something that appears capable of hitting a sea target, but sea targets move. And that’s why you need sophisticated ISR target tracking and acquisition capabilities, which they haven’t demonstrated yet.

“They are missing a lot of things because they don’t have ISR capabilities that allow them to use the systems that are in place,” he added.

There has been speculation as to whether Russia could launch the Zircon missile from a submarine, which would make defense more difficult. But Connolly said it appears that Russia has abandoned the idea, which is “a scale back in ambition”.

Also, Russian defense sources say that will be the first carrier of the Zircon Admiral Golowko, which will be the first Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate to be powered by a Russian-made engine, which could cause delays for technical reasons.

“Russia has deployed many cruise missiles. They don’t have to use hypersonic missiles for operational reasons,” he said, although they could use them “for symbolic reasons.” Regarding Zircon, Connolly said, “I don’t think it’s going to make a blind difference to Ukraine.” Should we be worried about Putin’s hypersonic missiles?

Rick Schindler

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