Russia’s Race for Hypersonic Weapons

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 170

Russia' 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile (Source: Russian Ministry of Defense)

The global race for hypersonic weapons, or at least for technologies to reach hypersonic velocity, undoubtedly goes on. Russia is paying close attention to the research, development and testing of hypersonic missiles in the United States (TASS, September 27, 2021), China (RIA Novosti, October 21, 2021), Japan (RT, March 15, 2020) and others, while itself attempting to become a major player in this field. Moscow officially completed the tests of the scramjet-driven 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship missile (, October 4). The first production missiles of this type are contracted for 2022 (Interfax, August 24). At the same time, Russia increased the number of Avangard nuclear-armed gliders deployed on the Soviet-era UR-100NUTTH intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), also classified as the RS-18A or SS-19 Mod 4. Two Avangard gliders had been built in early 2020, and an estimated four existed as of early 2021 (TASS, December 17, 2020; Moskovsky Komsomolets, February 5, 2021); additional units can be expected to roll off the factory floor soon (Zvezda, August 10). However, Russia’s hypersonic weapons should be considered part of asymmetric and even psychological warfare rather than weapons of ultimate military dominance.

The main function of the Russian navy’s Tsirkon tactical hypersonic missiles is to overload the adversary’s missile-defense systems and provide a way for more traditional subsonic and supersonic anti-ship missiles to hit their targets. This approach derives from the two challenges Russia currently faces. First is a lack of both quantity and quality of Russian surface and submarine forces. Russia is still not capable of producing guided-missile destroyers. Meanwhile, the rates of manufacturing of the newest Yasen-class cruise-missile submarines (TASS, October 26) as well as the modernization of Oscar II–class and Akula-class submarines are far too slow (Krasnaya Zvezda, March 19). These shipyard bottlenecks hamper Russia’s ability to launch sufficiently large and capable conventional missile salvos to challenge the military capacities of the United States (and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—NATO) or China. This naval deficiency means Russia struggles to secure political gains from its claims of great power status.

The second challenge is the limited capacity of missile manufacturing itself. For instance, NPO Mashinostroyenia (a subsidiary of Tactical Missiles Corp.), the developer and manufacturer of weapons with ramjets and scramjets, including the Tsirkon, supplied to the Russian navy 55 P-800 Onyx supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles in 2019 (TASS, January 31, 2020). Considering the amount of export supplies of Yakhont missiles (the export version of the Onyx) in previous years (, accessed November 9, 2021), the mentioned supply in 2019 presumably indicates the peak level of productivity. Moreover, the further modernization of the Onyx (RIA Novosti, October 18) means that this missile will remain one of Russia’s two main types of naval missiles. The second type is the Kalibr family of subsonic cruise missiles, the most advanced version of which is the long-range 3M14T Kalibr-NK, produced by OKB Novator (a subsidiary of Almaz-Antey). The annual number of Kalibr-NKs produced may be estimated as below 50 units since the Russian navy has limited itself to just single missile–firing exercises when using this type (, April 6, October 7).

The number of Tsirkon anti-ship missiles is planned to be much lower than the navy’s inventory of Onyx and Kalibr missiles. However, the hypersonic missile variety is specifically designed to complicate the adversary’s calculations toward Russia’s actual military capacity. Presumably, this will force Russia’s adversaries to be more willing to take Russian national interests around the globe into account.

The same logic and approach applies to the Avangard hypersonic nuclear-armed gliders, which are also developed and produced by NPO Mashinostroyenia. Because of its specifications, each glider must be carried upward by a heavy, liquid-fueled ICBM. The addition of the Avangard, thus, does not change the US-Russian strategic balance as such (, September 28, 2021) and will not alter it in a foreseeable future. Instead, the Avangard system is designed to make Moscow’s strategic intentions less clear and to complicate Washington’s strategic calculations, which had presumed that old Soviet/Russian ICBMs would continue to be dismantled. Consequently, this weapons system is supposed to compel the US to continue the strategic dialogue on nuclear disarmament with Russia despite ongoing bilateral tensions. In other words, the Avangard, like the Tsirkon, has more psychological rather than combat value for Moscow.

Besides the above-described political and industrial issues, the main problem Russia faces regarding hypersonic weapons is developing guided missile flight. The parameters of a hypersonic flight profile and the technological conditions of Russia’s industrial base mean that the guidance of Russian hypersonic missiles depends on autonomous inertial systems based on gyroscopes rather than on radio control, satellite, radar and/or optical seekers (, 2009, 2013, 2018). Concerning the Avangard glider, which has a much higher speed and may be classified as a trans-atmospheric vehicle (, 2021), this issue is even more critical (, 2017).

Consequently, Russia’s hypersonic weapons require an accurate provisional targeting and flight profile programming and, thus, are sensitive to inevitable errors that crop up within the autonomous inertial control system. Russia’s hypersonic weapons will, therefore, remain expensive and exotic. It is difficult to imagine that the yearly numbers of manufactured Tsirkon missiles and Avangard gliders will increase beyond single digits until at least 2030.

Finally, while the Russian hypersonic weapons are considered promising, their combat efficiency has yet to be confirmed. That is why Moscow seeks to convert the possession of such weapons into a diplomatic asset. Both the Tsirkon and Avangard prop up Russia’s international status as a leading global military power. They allow Moscow to play the card of strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the United States and NATO on the one hand and China on the other hand, even if the actual amount of these missiles and gliders in the Russian arsenal is effectively insignificant.