Moscow’s political-military leadership places growing emphasis on long-range stand-off precision strike systems as a key element in its ongoing modernization program, complementing efforts to strengthen “pre-nuclear” deterrence and offering additional conventional capabilities. One emerging pattern is to equip Russia’s naval forces, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), with the latest Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile system, which reportedly can reach a speed of Mach 9, with a maximum range of more than 1,000 kilometers. The defense ministry recently announced that these strike systems will be placed on the newest frigates entering service in the Pacific Fleet. Nevertheless, like the effort in recent years to boost the strike capability of the VMF by mounting the Kalibr cruise missile system on surface ships, the plans for the Tsirkon include both frigates and submarines, which will extend across several of the VMF fleets (Lenta.ru, June 3, 2020; see EDM, December 11, 2019).
The Pacific Fleet will receive three new Project 22350 frigates by 2025; each of these will be armed with the Tsirkon missile system. The defense ministry plans the first of these, the Admiral Amelko, to arrive in the Pacific Fleet in 2023, with the additional two frigates entering service in 2025. This forms part of a wider plan to introduce Tsirkon-capable frigates in other fleets. A total of eight such frigates are planned, with three ships each for the Pacific and Northern Fleets and two for the Black Sea Fleet. The final four of these frigates will be fitted with 24 vertical launchers instead of the standard 16. The eight “Admiral” series of frigates are tasked with naval grouping protection, communications and counter-terrorism as well as peace-support missions and functions. Their armament allows them to offer air defense for other ships, support amphibious landing, and to strike various land and sea targets. They will be built using stealth technology using the most advanced composite materials, with an overall effort to reduce their radar visibility (Izvestia, June 10).
The future Pacific Fleet Admiral Amelko was laid down with Admiral Chichagov last spring, with construction due to begin this year. The underlying defense planning involved is based on increasing Russia’s military capability in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR). As Moscow-based defense specialist Vasily Kashin notes, the Pacific Fleet annually participates in joint naval exercises with both China and India. Kashin explains, “At least twice a year, the fleet needs to send ships on long trips,” adding that, in parallel, “they should participate in international activities to maintain a presence off the coast of Somalia. Periodically, there are trips to the shores of Southeast Asian states with call at ports, [and] joint exercises with countries such as Vietnam and Singapore” (Izvestia, June 4; Topwar.ru, April 14).
These new frigates will replace the old Soviet destroyers and large anti-submarine ships to support Russia’s maritime presence in the APR. Russian military expert Dmitry Boltenkov also acknowledges the utility of these ships in the APR and beyond: “The Pacific Fleet regularly sails in the waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans, sometimes even reaching the Mediterranean Sea. Project 22350 frigates are suited for such missions—they are modern ships with powerful weapons. Their presence in remote corners of the world will make it possible to assess the capabilities of the Russian navy. It is also important that they are reliable and have good seaworthiness. The frigate Admiral Gorshkov, leading a detachment of ships, made a round-the-world trip, during which naval sailors without serious breakdowns covered more than 40,000 nautical miles (at least 74,000 km)” (Izvestia, June 4).
While the estimated range of the Tsirkon may be up to 1,000 km, reported test launches from naval platforms to strike ground targets appear more limited to around 500 km. In January of this year, the Admiral Gorshkov launched the Tsirkon from the Barents Sea to strike ground target at a training facility in the Northern Urals. The Tsirkon will prove to be a significant boost to the VMF, since its hypersonic speed would likely overwhelm most air-defense systems (Izvestia, June 4).
The defense ministry’s plans to introduce the Tsirkon system also extends to Project 885 and 885M nuclear submarines, with reports that these will be capable of firing from under the ice. While some sources link this test to the Tsirkon, it is likely that it represents a prototype test, with the official testing for such submarine launches still more than two years away. In December 2019, the Severodvinsk (Project 885) allegedly carried out test launches of the Tsirkon from under the ice in the Arctic region (Lenta.ru, June 3). According to Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko, the Tsirkon cruise missile is intended for Project 885, 885M and 949AM submarines, Project 22350 and 23560 surface ships, as well as the Project 1144.2 guided-missile cruiser Admiral Nakhimov. Krivoruchko is confident that the Tsirkon will enter service in 2020 and 2021, confirming plans to develop a ground-based version of the system (Profile.ru, May 10). Boris Obnosov, the general director of the Tactical Missile Weapons Corporation, explained that the Tsirkon advances in stand-off strike systems are part of “several dozen” hypersonic projects currently in development (RIA Novosti, May 16).
The planned Tsirkon-capable submarine initiative involves standardizing the launch tubes to allow the firing of Kalibr, Onyx and Tsirkon cruise missiles. Izvestia offered more detail on the Northern Fleet exercise in December 2019 to test the use of the Tsirkon by launching the missile from under the ice. The nuclear submarine Severodvinsk took part in the exercise in the Arctic region, and it completed ascent and diving, while conducting training launches of cruise missiles. The defense ministry has also approved the final plan for the deployment of the Project 885M (Yasen-M) nuclear submarine. Among the seven submarines that will arrive in the VMF, five will be sent to the Northern Fleet (Izvestia, June 10).
Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missiles seems set to become a commonplace feature in the armory of the VMF, which will increase firepower and precision strike options. The prioritizing of the Pacific Fleet implies Moscow’s interest in the APR will be strengthened in the years ahead, while the Northern and Black Sea fleets will also benefit from the rush to outfit surface and sub-surface vessels with conventional cruise missiles.