The Hypersonic Hype and Russia’s Diminished Nuclear Threshold

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 116

(Source: Military and Commercial Technology blogger)

President Vladimir Putin used the July 26, 2020, Navy Day and the Main Navy Parade in St. Petersburg to once again promote Russia’s “superweapons,” which will ostensibly give the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) “a unique advantage” over its Western counterparts. According to Putin, “The deployment of advanced technologies that have no equals in the world, including hypersonic strike systems and underwater drones, will increase naval combat capabilities” (Interfax, July 26). The Main Navy Parade displayed some 46 vessels. Smaller, satellite parades were also held in six other Russian naval base cities as well as at Russia’s foreign naval base in Tartus, Syria (, July 26).

The Ministry of Defense used the Navy Day festivities to announce that the nuclear-powered super-torpedo “Poseidon” is now in its final stages of development and will be soon tested using the specially designed nuclear submarine Belgorod—a modified Oscar II–class cruise missile submarine. Construction of the Belgorod was initiated in 1992 but was put on pause several times. Redesigned and finally completed last year, this massive (30,000 tons) Oscar II submarine is now undergoing tests and awaiting an assembled Poseidon super-torpedo. The second Poseidon-carrying vessel, the Khabarovsk, is a redesigned strategic nuclear Borei-M submarine, somewhat smaller than the Belgorod. The Khabarovsk may be the first in a new class of submarines if the navy decides to further expand the deployment of the Poseidon system (, July 26).

The Kremlin first leaked information about the Poseidon—then dubbed the “Ocean Multipurpose System Status-6” (also known in the West as “Kanyon”)—in November 2015. Status-6 is an oversized, nuclear-powered, torpedo-form, unmanned, underwater drone, apparently developed by the St. Petersburg–based Rubin TsKP or Central Design Bureau. Status-6 can travel at a speed of up to 85 kilometers per hour (some 56 knots) and dive as deep as 1 kilometer; its intercontinental range extends to 10,000 kilometers, and it can reportedly carry a massive 100-megaton warhead. Status-6 was designed to “destroy important economic coastal regions of the enemy and cause long-lasting massive radioactive contamination” (see EDM, November 12, 2015). The Belgorod and the Khabarovsk could carry up to six Poseidon drones capable of devasting enemy shorelines by detonating close to the coast and creating a gigantic highly radioactive tsunami, destroying and contaminating large stretches of densely populated littoral territory. Russian Captain First Rank (ret.) Konstantin Sivkov recently claimed that a Poseidon attack could initiate a tectonic break up and total destruction of the North American subcontinent, thus making this weapon a central component of Moscow’s strategic arsenal. The United States government’s calls on Russia to scrap this terrible weapon must not be headed, he contended, since this was a sign “the US is terrified” (, July 3).

Together with the Poseidon, Russia’s president has been touting the Zircon hypersonic missile, which is also reportedly in its final stages of development. The Zircon, according to Putin, can fly at speeds exceeding Mach 9, with a range of up to 1,000 kilometers. Reportedly, the Zircon was fired from the new Project 22350 stealth frigate Admiral Gorshkov—the first in its class—which was on display for the Kremlin leader in St. Petersburg, on July 26. The Gorshkov has 16 launch tubes capable of firing the Zircon as well as more conventional land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles (, July 26).

The Zircon has been in development since the 1970s and 1980s. It is apparently a weapon specifically designed to strike US carriers or other large, high-value seaborne assets. Aiming the hypersonic missile at land targets would be impractical since its radar is apparently only able to distinguish large-contrast targets on the open sea. The Russian military’s traditional weakness has long been its limited ability to collect enough reliable targeting info, so the Zircon was evidently designed to do it all in one package: fly up to 40 kilometers above the sea surface, pause to radar-scan the horizon, select a target, and fly to it at hypersonic speed while descending to 20 kilometers and then plunging down. The missile’s original range was 500 kilometers, since the Zircon’s targeting radar cannot see further. Putin apparently insisted the range be expanded to 1,000 kilometers, which make little sense. While flying at Mach 9, the Zircon goes blind—the targeting radar cannot function. But this high speed is supposed to allow the missile to reach its destination before the enemy vessel (carrier) has had time to move too far. Since the Zircon is only using internal hygroscopic guidance during hypersonic flight, it cannot be deflected by electronic warfare means; but its chances of hitting a moving ship directly seem to be remote—a carrier would have moved a mile or two away while the Russian hypersonic missile blindly traverses its distance to the original target (Vpk-news, March 24). The extended-range Zircon thus makes sense only as a nuclear weapon with a 200+ kiloton warhead—an underwater massive nuclear explosion would disable a carrier with shockwave even from a mile or two away.

The Russian VMF had not received a new destroyer in 30 years, and it is presently struggling to build frigates like the Gorshkov because Ukraine stopped selling it frigate engines after 2014. The Russian admirals have found a workaround by building lots of small corvettes and missile boats of 1,000–2,000 tons, with up to eight launch tubes that can fire anti-ship and other cruise missiles. Such a small ship could certainly destroy a city or enemy base or disable a carrier battle group if it was carrying several nuclear-tipped cruise missiles. But a fleet of nuclear-armed ships and submarines, as was the case in Soviet times, is only good for fighting a nuclear war, while its conventional capabilities in local wars become limited. The main problem with Putin’s superweapons is that they are truly doomsday devices, valuable only for deterrence. The Kremlin is constantly plying the deterrence game by trying to scare the West. But this situation has two dangerous ramifications. First, the nuclear threshold is becoming lower: in any serious skirmish, the Russian navy would either need to go nuclear or risk being sunk. And second, while the Russian leadership believes it has surpassed the West militarily thanks to its dazzling superweapons, Moscow’s threshold for employing military force in conflict situations may also drop further.