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Russia’s Zircon hypersonic super missile likely to change rules of warfare

The lead frigate of project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov test fires Zircon hypersonic cruise missile on Monday (Image courtesy: Ministry of Defence, Russia)

Russia on Monday moved a step closer to its ultimate goal of equipping the country's warships and submarines with "unstoppable" hypersonic cruise missiles after yet another successful test firing of Zircon (also spelled as 3M22 Tsirkon) in the waters of the White Sea.

The lead frigate of project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov fired a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile at a ground target located on the coast of the Barents Sea, announced the Russian Defence Ministry.

According to objective control data, the Zircon missile successfully hit the target at a range of over 350 km with a direct hit.

"During the tests, the tactical and technical characteristics of the Zircon missile were confirmed. The flight speed was about 7 Mach," the statement from the ministry said.

The frigate Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Gorshkov is one of the most modern ships of the Northern Fleet. It was built at the Severnaya Verf shipyard in St. Petersburg and entered service in July 2018.

Project 22350 frigates are multifunctional warships capable of effectively fighting surface, air and underwater adversaries, as well as striking land and coastal targets at a distance of over 1.5 thousand kilometers.

Moscow said that flight tests of the hypersonic cruise missile Zircon are continuing as it moves ahead with its plan to equip submarines and surface ships of the Russian Navy with the Zircon complex.

Test firing of the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile by the frigate Admiral Gorshkov was also carried out on the northwest coast of Russia in early October, November and on December 11, last year. All shootings were considered successful.

Quoting sources, Russian news agency Tass reported Sunday that the state trials of the Zircon hypersonic missile from a surface carrier will begin next month.

"The first launch from the Admiral Gorshkov frigate within the state trials is planned for the first part of August. The second part of August will see flight trials of Zircon from the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine," it reported

Analysts in New Delhi, meanwhile, are also seeing the bigger picture at a time when the defence ties between India and Russia continue to grow.

"The successful test launch of a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile shows that Russia continues to pioneer emerging defence technologies. Therefore, despite diversification, it is important for India to continue to develop defence partnerships with Moscow," Professor Gulshan Sachdeva, Chairperson, Centre for European Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IndiaNarrative.com.

Zircon striking targets on ground and under water at a hypersonic speed

It was on February 20, 2019 that the Russian President Vladimir Putin – during his annual Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly – informed about Tsirkon, the "promising innovation", for the first time officially.

Addressing a gathering attended by Federation Council members, State Duma deputies, members of the government, leaders of the constitutional court and Supreme Court, governors, Putin said that Tsirkon, a hypersonic missile that can reach speeds of approximately Mach 9 and strike a target more than 1,000 km away both under water and on the ground, is being successfully developed according to plan.

"It can be launched from water, from surface vessels and from submarines, including those that were developed and built for carrying Kalibr high-precision missiles, which means it comes at no additional cost for us," he said

In 2020, during the same annual address, the Russian President emphasised that for the first time in the history of nuclear missile weapons, including the Soviet period and modern times, the country was not catching up with anyone, but, on the contrary, other leading states have yet to create the weapons that Russia already possesses.

"The country's defence capability is ensured for decades to come, but we cannot rest on our laurels and do nothing. We must keep moving forward, carefully observing and analysing the developments in this area across the world, and create next-generation combat systems and complexes. This is what we are doing today," he had said

During this year's Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly, Putin had assured that the Tsirkon hypersonic missiles, along with the latest Avangard hypersonic intercontinental missile systems and the Peresvet combat laser systems, and the first regiment armed with Sarmat super-heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles, will be put on combat duty soon.

"By 2024, the share of modern weapons and military equipment in the armed forces will reach nearly 76 percent, which is a very good indicator. This share in the nuclear triad will be over 88 percent before this year is out," said the Russian President. 

As per the US State Department, as of September 1, 2020, the Russian Federation had declared 1,447 deployed strategic warheads and has the capacity to deploy many more than 1,550 warheads on its modernized ICBMs and SLBMs, as well as heavy bombers, but "is constrained from doing so" by New START.

Immediately after coming into power earlier this year, the Joe Biden administration had said that the extension of the Treaty between the US and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms, also known as the New START Treaty, until February 5, 2026 ensures it has "verifiable limits" on Russian ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers for the next five years.

Yet, hypersonic missiles may pose a fresh challenge to the New START Treaty. "The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the only active treaty limiting the deployment of US and Russian nuclear weapons, does not explicitly restrict hypersonic missiles — an omission that turns out to be intentional. Either nation could conceivably take advantage of this gap in the treaty’s coverage to expand their nuclear-capable missile forces, unfettered by the carefully constructed arms control regime that protects global nuclear stability, wrote Cameron Tracy on All Things Nuclear website.

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