‘Catch up and surpass’: Russia Claims to Have Tested Hypersonic Missiles

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 57

Test firing of Zircon hypersonic missile (Source: Sputnik News)

Recent events in Syria seem to have spurned Russia into more decisive action when it comes to upgrading its military capabilities. In part, these Russian efforts appear to be focusing on developing advanced hypersonic weaponry and missile complexes.

On April 15, Russian officials claimed to have successfully tested the world’s first ever maneuvering hypersonic missile—the “Zircon” (3M22 Tsirkon). This missile can reportedly strike targets within ranges of 400 kilometers, with both conventional and nuclear warheads, at a speed of Mach 8 (9,878.4 km/hour) (TASS, April 15). All details pertaining to the development of hypersonic missile weaponry by the Russian Military Industrial Complex are labeled as “gostaijna” (classified information). Incidentally, work on hypersonic missiles was first initiated during the Soviet period (such as the Kh-90 GELA project); but Perestroika, general economic hardship and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union effectively ended such efforts.

Following last month’s reportedly successful test, various Russian sources suggested that the “Zircon” will be introduced into the Russian Armed Forces as early as in 2018, well ahead of the initially established schedule (2020–2025). Earlier, it was suggested that Russian battlecruisers, including the Admiral Nakhimov and the Pyotr Velikiy, as well as Lider-class destroyers and Yasen- and Husky-class submarines, could be equipped with this new type of weaponry (TASS, April 19, 2016; Politrussia.com, March 17, 2016). According to the president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, Konstantin Sivkov, this will have a dramatic effect on the balance of power between Russia’s and the United States’ military capabilities at sea. He added that, given its characteristics and alleged invincibility (due to its speed and maneuvering), the Russian hypersonic missile will easily be able to evade all up-to-date anti-missile complexes/systems and “weaken the capabilities of the American battle fleet to a considerable degree” (Rusvesna.su, April 15). However, other expert assessments have been significantly less straightforward. For instance, the well-known military analyst Dmitry Litovkin noted that “the possibility of Russia having successfully tested a hypersonic missile does exist, but there are too many questions.” His concerns are primarily related to various specific details (such as the duration of the flight and the means by which such a speed was achieved) that are not quite clear from this particular test. Russian officials have, as yet, not clarified these points (Voennye Novosti, April 15).

The “Zircon” is not the only advanced Russian weapons system currently under development. It has now become evident that in addition to the drastic administrative reshuffles made to the Baltic Sea Fleet since July 2016 (see EDM July 19, 2016), Russia is also taking concrete steps to dramatically upgrade the Baltic Fleet’s military capabilities. On April 15, officials announced that the Baltic Fleet had received the “Bal” (NATO classification: SSC-6 “Sennight”) and “Bastion” (NATO classification: SSC-5 “Stooge”) mobile coastal defense missile systems, each of which can destroy both sea- and land-based targets. An official demonstration of these complexes is due on May 9 (during Victory Day celebrations) in Kaliningrad. Fifty various pieces of the most up-to-date Russian military equipment are expected to be presented to the public during this year’s annual military parade in the Russian exclave (Topwar.ru, April 15).

The Bastion system, in particular, is equipped with P-800 “Oniks” (NATO classification: SS-N-26 “Strobile”) missiles, which can reach targets approximately 600 km away (there is, however, a heated debate as to whether the true range could be 800 km) (Topwar.ru, April 15). The appearance of this weaponry in the Baltic is a serious testament to the Kremlin’s regional ambitions. The deployment of these weapons completes the formation of a Russian “arc of counter containment” (see EDM, January 18), stretching from Kaliningrad to Sevastopol. Notably, the Bastion system was demonstrated in Crimea on May 9, 2014, and was subsequently installed on the illegally annexed Ukrainian peninsula in 2015. Moscow has been intensifying its military build-up in this way along the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) weakest flanks (Baltic and Black Seas) in order to intimidate regional players and further Russia’s military supremacy over NATO forces there.

In addition, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) will apparently be equipped “in the nearest future” with S-500 “Prometey” (55R6M “Triumfator-M”) surface-to-air missile systems (Voennye Novosti, April 8). The advanced S-500 system, developed by the Almaz-Antey Air Defense Concern, can reportedly target objects 600 km away and destroy up to ten incoming ballistic missiles simultaneously. It is also designed to shoot down fighter jets, helicopters and cruise missiles. The majority of military experts and specialists agree that the S-500 is a much more formidable and advanced piece of weaponry than its predecessor, the S-400 (NATO classification: SA-21 “Growler”). It is, therefore, safe to assume that Russia’s decision to provide China with S-400s earlier this year (see EDM, February 24) was motivated by the fact that the Russians have been preparing for the near-term introduction and gradual replacement of the S-400 with a more advanced model.

The news regarding the S-500 was presented, on April 8, by the commander of the VKS, Colonel General Viktor Bondarev. He also said that the S-400 system is being modified and modernized, so that it is now able to target objects in low outer space (blizhnii kosmos). All in all, the top-ranking rank military official positively assessed the tempo of the modernization of the Russian Armed Forces in terms of its surface-to-air missile systems (Voennye Novosti, April 8). Adding credence to Bondarev’s announcement, the Head of the Zhukov Air and Space Defense Academy, Vladimir Liaporov, commented that the Russian Armed Forces have already started to train specialists on operating the S-500 system (RIA Novosti, April 8).

Aside from these rather specific developments, several longer-term trends should not be omitted. For instance, Russia is rapidly replacing its dated OTR-21 “Tochka” (NATO classification: SS-21 “Scarab-A”) and “Tochka-U” surface-to-surface missile systems with “Iskander-M” complexes (with a kill range of 500 km). The Iskanders have also apparently undergone further modernization. This means that the Russian military is actively pursuing the strategic goal set by Major General Mikhail Matveevsky (the head of the Missile Troops and Artillery) in January 2017 to modernize this domain of the Russian Armed Forces (Poltexpert.org, January 2). Nonetheless, a word of caution is appropriate here: it is rather difficult to distinguish between Russia’s real achievements in this sphere and propagandist bluff aimed at drawing attention away from the country’s unsuccessful developments on domestic and foreign fronts.