In early August, Russia’s Northern Fleet staged a large naval exercise in the northeastern Atlantic in which it again tested the Tsirkon 3M22 hypersonic cruise missile system. The Tsirkon 3M22 will be procured for surface ships and submarines in 2022. However, the exercise not only tested the Tsirkon, it carried out an innovative trial of a new naval automated control system (avtomatizirovannoy sistemy upravleniya—ASU); the reported results of this combination of automated command-and-control (C2) and hypersonic strike systems mark an exponential increase in Russia’s maritime and non-contact stand-off strike capabilities (RIA Novosti, August 27). Since January 1, 2021, the Northern Fleet has the formal status as a military district (MD). During military operations, the MDs function as Joint Strategic Commands (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK) (see EDM, January 6). This means that the Northern Fleet has equal status and operational role alongside the other MDs/OSKs (Western, Southern, Central and Eastern).
The Northern Fleet exercise focused on testing the new naval ASU, integrating maritime and aviation assets to facilitate, in real time, a rehearsed attack on enemy shipping. The missile launches involved the nuclear submarine Orel, the cruiser Marshal Ustinov and the frigate Admiral of the Fleet Kasatonov. Two crews of Tu-142 reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft transferred data about the hypothetical enemy to the command, and they also launched a strike at a distance of hundreds of kilometers from the target. The ASU unified the C2 with the processes of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to offer real-time operational capability in target acquisition and executing the attack. In addition to receiving ISR from aircraft, the ASU receives data utilizing ground-based radars, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The naval ASU offers the capability to enhance the speed of decision-making in the use of the Tsirkon 3M-22, and it also functions equally well with other precision-strike systems, such as Kalibr, Vulkan or Yakhont (RIA Novosti, August 27; Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 26).
Flying at distances of hundreds of kilometers from both the command and the potential targets, the Tu-142 aircraft transmitted information about enemy locations. Meanwhile, according to defense ministry sources, the ASU itself identified the most important targets and “decided” how to destroy them. Russian military experts see this ASU development as greatly enhancing the firepower, speed of target acquisition, and destruction of maritime targets—clearly boosting the capabilities of Russia’s navy, the Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) (Izvestia, August 23).
Russian officials in the Ministry of Defense contend that the innovation in the use of the naval ASU lies in detection as well as the system’s involvement in target selection. Indeed, the reporting on the conduct of the exercise strongly implied a role for artificial intelligence (AI), as the various assets were brought together throughout the automated C2, while the system itself “selected” the targets. The ASU was designed principally for use with the Tsirkon 3M22: together they make a highly potent combination (Izvestia, August 23). Since tests began on the Tsirkon 3M22, the VMF leadership has looked to these among other hypersonic systems to radically boost maritime capability. However, integrated with the new naval ASU, these systems will play a much greater role in Russian military operational capability and in deterrence (see EDM, June 10, 2020).
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, referring to the recent testing of Tsirkon missiles, said that these had demonstrated the highest accuracy with launches at sea targets, leaving “no chance for the enemy.” Deputy Defense Minister Alexei Krivoruchko also confirmed that the state tests are planned to be completed this year and will begin serial deliveries of the latest hypersonic strike systems for the VMF in 2022. “Russia was the first in the world to receive hypersonic weapons, and a new ASU is needed to fully reveal all of its strengths,” according to military expert Vladislav Shurygin, adding, “At the same time, it will also receive information from radars and satellites. After detecting a target, hypersonic speed makes it possible to hit it in a matter of minutes, even at a distance of hundreds of kilometers. During the flight time, the ships simply will not have time to go far” (Izvestia, August 23).
Russian media outlets also note the growing concern within the United States’ defense circles over hypersonic systems such as the Tsirkon. For example, in a recent symposium on space and hypersonic technologies, the head of US Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, admitted that the Russian Armed Forces are a serious challenge for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his opinion, the Tsirkon will provide the Russian navy with an unconditional advantage in any possible armed conflict at sea. “Our current ground-based and space-based sensor system may not be capable of detecting and tracking these missiles. It must be admitted that Russia is a leading country in the world in hypersonic technologies… And if our defense industry enterprises do not figure out how to resist them in a short time, the ships of the NATO countries’ fleets will become vulnerable,” warned Richard (Politexpert.net, August 28).
The timing of the Northern Fleet’s testing of the new ASU appears to be no coincidence. Russia and Belarus will conduct the Zapad 2021 combined strategic exercise (sovmestnoe strategicheskoe uchenie), entering its active phases on September 10–16. Among the numerous aspects of Russia’s military capabilities and readiness that will be tested during Zapad 2021, the various automated C2 systems will feature prominently, as the General Staff assesses how these may be integrated in the context of large-scale operations on several axes. This will include testing a range of ASU systems, both in-service and those at development stages (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, September 6). The Northern Fleet exercise in early August, uniting naval automated Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) with existing hypersonic systems, including the Tsirkon 3M22, confirms the importance of testing such systems in the context of Zapad 2021; it also reveals that the exercise is centered on three joint strategic commands: Western, Southern and the Northern Fleet OSKs.