Putin Prioritizes Tsirkon Hypersonic Missiles for the Russian Navy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 168

(Source: YouTube/Russian Ministry of Defense)

This week (December 2), while opening a series of meetings in Sochi on military development and the further enhancement of Russia’s Armed Forces, President Vladimir Putin set down the main tasks for the modernization of the Russian navy—the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF). Putin explained that special attention must be paid to arming warships and submarines with Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missiles, which, in his view, will help to ensure strategic stability. Reportedly, the Tsirkon 3M22 will be procured for use on Project 22350 frigates and Project 1155 anti-submarine warfare ships. The large anti-submarine warships will be modernized and fitted with universal launchers, allowing them to fire both Kalibr and Tsirkon cruise missiles. According to Admiral (retired) Valentin Selivanov, the former chief of the VMF Main Staff, “The combat capabilities of these ships will increase many times over.” The Kalibr-type cruise missiles, and even more so the Tsirkon, could be used against an aircraft carrier strike group. In addition, these new weapons will also make it possible to strike important ground targets, such as enemy headquarters, airfields and important communications centers in coastal areas (Izvestia, December 3).

Putin uses these gatherings in Sochi every six months to meet with the leadership of the military and the defense industrial complex (Oboronnyi Promyshennyi Kompleks—OPK), frequently issuing multiple instructions. This latest multi-day series of meetings looked at the priorities for military development in Russia to 2030. “Based on the results of previous meetings, several hundred instructions were given in this format. But it is not the quantity that matters but how they are carried out. It is satisfactory overall—70 percent fulfilled. This suggests that our meetings in Sochi of this kind are in demand and very effective. Why is this happening? Because you and I know that if something is not done, after half a year you will have to answer why it is not done and what needs to be done to fix the situation,” Putin reminded his audience. After outlining naval development and recent activities and deployments for the VMF, Putin turned to the theme of how important high-precision strike systems will be for the surface ships and submarines. “In the coming years, it is necessary to actively increase the combat capabilities of the fleet. In many respects, this depends on the planned admission of navigational frigates and submarines modified for the use of Tsirkon hypersonic missiles. This weapon becomes extremely important for maintaining strategic stability,” he explained (Vesti.ru, December 2).

Putin’s interest in pushing for more advances in high-precision strike capability across the Russian Armed Forces has long been known. Additionally, his controversial address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, set out a vision for introducing several new hypersonic missile systems, including hypersonic-glide weapons and sub-sea versions. The question is why is Putin returning to this theme now, and what are his reasons for stressing the Tsirkon cruise missile in particular? Clearly, there are features of this still-in-design system that are appealing for the political-military leadership, and Putin wants some marked progress from the OPK toward future procurement of such an advanced system (Izvestia, December 3).

One Moscow-based Russian military specialist highlights the fact that these are being designed to hit mobile targets. Rustem Klupov describes this new weapon: “A ship grouping is a moving target. To destroy such moving targets, the new-generation Tsirkon missiles were created. These anti-ship missiles can hit both single and group ship targets. The amount of explosives in each of the missiles is enough to send a middle-class cruiser to the bottom with just one Tsirkon. Tsirkons have a hypersonic speed, which allows them to overcome both the far and near air-defense zones of ship groupings. In the creation of such missiles, we have gone far ahead, seriously breaking away from the Americans. They now have no such class of missiles” (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 3).

An underlying reason for Putin’s interest in hypersonic systems such as the Tsirkon is the linkage to strategic deterrence. These can be used against carrier groups, surface ships and ground targets. Reportedly, the Tsirkon will be able to reach Mach 8 and strike targets at up to 500 kilometers. This would essentially make it impossible to intercept them since Mach 2.5 is the limit for most modern air-defense systems (Izvestia, December 3).

Earlier reports on the possible specifications and capabilities of the Tsirkon 3M22 suggested speeds of up to 2,648 meters per second (Mach 7.7), covering 160 km in one minute. The project commenced in 2011, and during a test in April 2017, the Tsirkon had allegedly achieved the Mach 8 breakthrough. Further development and testing seemed earmarked to occur in 2018–2020, with a planned introduction by 2025 at the latest. It may also be that the testing phase since the April 2017 “breakthrough” has proved more challenging, and Putin wants to pressure the OPK to complete this design and testing phase in order for procurement targets to be met (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 21, 2017). The prototype Tsirkon system and missile complex have been in development under the Special Machine Building Design Bureau (Konstruktorskoye Byuro Spetsialnogo Mashinostroyeniya—KBSM), a subsidiary of Almaz-Antey. It was originally planned to use these on the refitted Petr Velikiy and the Admiral Nakhimov heavy cruiser ships as well as the new Husky-class and Yasen-M submarines. The launch tubes for these naval assets are also compatible with Oniks and Kalibr anti-ship and sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM), respectively; and it now appears that the Tsirkon will be procured for additional naval platforms (Ekspert, April 15, 2017).

The Tsirkon 3M22 hypersonic cruise missile system remains locked in its testing phase, and various estimates suggest its procurement may take place between 2022 and 2025. It will enter service in the VMF. Putin singling out the Tsirkon in particular implies that the political-military leadership is assigning strategic priority to this system. But all this also comes at a time when the reporting on Tsirkon testing had subsided. Thus, the president’s prioritization of the system, with its numerous advertised advantages, appears to reflect his own challenge to the OPK to deliver.