Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has confirmed a planned surge in the number of warships to be equipped with Tsirkon and Kalibr cruise missiles, which follows President Vladimir Putin placing similar emphasis on these systems during his recent series of meetings with defense industry officials, in Sochi (see EDM, December 2). In a conference call on December 9, Shoigu stated, “As part of the Military-Maritime Fleet [Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF], it is necessary to increase the number of ships in the far-sea zone, including those carrying Kalibr cruise missiles and Tsirkon hypersonic missiles” (Izvestia, December 9).
The renewed interest among Russia’s political-military leadership in the Tsirkon 3M22, in particular, comes after the final collapse of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the impending renewal of New START in 2021. Moscow is modernizing and increasing its high-precision strike systems, partly reflecting the drive to implement the pre-nuclear deterrence element contained in its 2014 Military Doctrine, as well as due to these arms control treaties proving moribund or facing fresh agreement. The context provides explanation as to why the Russian leadership places such emphasis upon hypersonic systems: Moscow can, in part, present those new weapons as capable of overcoming “any” foreign missile-defense systems. The Tsirkon 3M22 is at the forefront of this process, in addition to the maritime-based variants of the Kalibr cruise missiles (Vesti, December 2).
Shoigu said Udaloy-class frigates will receive Tsirkon 3M22 systems, effectively turning these vessels into mini-cruisers. He added that it is necessary “to expand the range of unmanned aerial vehicles, robotic systems and weapons based on new physical principles.” According to Izvestia’s sources in the defense industry, the Tsirkon is being designed to strike sea and land targets, with an alleged flight speed of Mach 10 and an estimated range of 1,000 kilometers. Other reports have indicated a range for the Tsirkon of only up to 500 km (Izvestia, December 3, 9).
In February 2019, following Washington’s announcement that the United States would be withdrawing from the INF Treaty, Putin quickly supported Shoigu’s proposal to create a ground-based version of the Kalibr. “I agree with the proposals of the Ministry of Defense to begin work on the ‘land’ version of the Kalibr and to open a new direction—the creation of a medium-range hypersonic ground-based missile,” Putin said, adding that the US had “announced that they are engaged in research and development, and we will do the same.” Russian media also highlights US reporting on the United States’ Harpoon missile system, whose range will be substantially inferior to its Russian Kalibr counterpart (280 km versus 600 km, respectively), and less than three times as fast (Mach 0.85 against Mach 3) (Izvestia, December 9).
All new Russian ships will be ready to use the Tsirkon hypersonic missiles. On December 9, the head of the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), Alexei Rakhmanov, explained, “All the new ship projects that we are building, they are, from the point of view of launchers, universal for a whole family of missiles, including those that you named” (Izvestia, December 9).
Rakhmanov also said that his firm’s export order portfolio is several billion dollars, though he did not provide a precise figure. Moscow apparently has no plans to export the Tsirkon when it is ready for procurement, but there could be an export version in the future. In 2019, USC signed 17 state contracts with the defense ministry, which will provide sufficient work until 2026–2028. Rakhmanov added that by the end of the year, the VMF will receive four ships that underwent medium and reconstruction repairs (Izvestia, December 9).
Russian media outlets are stressing recent reporting that US Defense Secretary Mark Esper had admitted Washington is lagging behind Moscow in developing hypersonic systems. While addressing the recent (December 6–7) gathering of the Reagan National Defense Forum, in California, Esper noted, “We were clearly in the lead, and now we are playing catch-up. The Department of Defense is investing every dollar we can, every dollar we can physically use to achieve a competitive advantage in the field of hypersonic weapons.” He also expressed concern that many of the Russian systems in development will fall beyond the scope of New START. ‘There is no reporting and verification on these things. Over the years, both the former US administration and the current administration have seen that Russia is cheating with the INF Treaty. And now they have a military potential that we do not have in terms of medium- and shorter-range missiles. So, we are very closely following what the Russians are doing,” Esper added (Gazeta.ru, December 9).
Similarly, in Russian news coverage of the hypersonic systems currently being developed by the US and Russia, it seems Washington’s variants will only reach around Mach 6. If the reports of the Tsirkon missile having achieved Mach 10 (even for only part of its flight duration) during tests in April 2017 are accurate, they would lend weight to Esper’s assertion that the US is now engaged in a process of “catching up” with Russian advances in this field. That said, neither side is presently implying any political willingness to engage in a Cold War–style arms race—even in this niche area.