Russia is making Zircon missile a super weapon against the United States

This post was published in the Russian online magazine Vzglyad. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance. We publish this material without editing the original text.


MOSCOW, (BM) – The tests of the Zircon hypersonic missile that took place a few days ago became a major event for the Russian Armed Forces. The United States is clearly frightened by the prospect of this complex at the disposal of the Russian Navy. However, for all its potential power “Zircon” has a number of limitations for its use. How can these missiles become a real threat to the United States?

On October 7, an event took place in the Northern Fleet that had been awaited for many years – the 3M22 Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile (ASM) hit a surface target. At least, this is what the Russian Ministry of Defense claims in its statement (although no visual confirmation of the target hit was shown, and this in itself is somewhat strange).

For many years, the Ministry of Defense has been collecting information about the tests of this missile drop by drop. Here it successfully launched, here it showed the exit to hypersound, here it showed a speed higher than the set one, here it hit a ground target, showing the exact operation of the navigation systems and the operation of the homing system close to the combat mode.

But the critical stage of testing is the defeat of a sea target on the water – and it was not. The hypersonic anti-ship missile has a weak point – it descends towards the target, surrounded by a cloud of plasma forming on the body. This makes it difficult to shoot at it, because the plasma partly absorbs the radar radiation. But for the same reason, it becomes an incredibly difficult problem to ensure that the homing of the rocket works.

A surface target is always a small target. And most often it is moving. The fact that the Zircon hit it (if, again, believe the message of the Ministry of Defense), suggests that the fundamental problems with the guidance of this missile at the target have been resolved. Domestic engineers, in a sense, “outwitted” the laws of nature, ensuring accurate guidance of the missile to the target, despite the plasma surrounding the missile. And this is a victory. The main step has been taken and has been taken, we will believe, successfully. The rest – including the adoption of the rocket into service – is a matter of time.

What do we know about “Zircon”

Long before the Ministry of Defense showed its now famous video, it was known that the missile was sized to be launched from the 3S-14 vertical launch unit. This was due to the fact that no other installations for surface ships were developed in Russia (the only exceptions are the launchers for the Uranus missile weapon system). All missiles, except for the “Uranium” missiles, launch to the target from the 3C-14 – which means that the new “Zircon” could not be an exception. And this meant that its size was approximately understandable – no more than that of the Onyx anti-ship missile.

First, because there are no materials that could withstand the heating of the rocket body during prolonged hypersonic flight at low altitude. And secondly, because it is possible to accelerate such a relatively small rocket to hypersound, and even when starting from a surface carrier, only by using a descent from a great height to gain speed.

Ground target launches confirmed these calculations. But after launching at a surface target, the Ministry of Defense named the exact parameters – a range of 450 kilometers, an altitude of up to 28 kilometers (a “slide” with climb and descent to the target), an average speed of 1.67 kilometers per second on the route. I must say that the range for launches against ground targets was greater – that is, 450 kilometers, apparently, is far from the limit.

But what came as a surprise to many was the huge number of coincidences of the Zircon parameters with the old Onyx supersonic rocket. A similar hull shape, a similar air intake casing, practically the same development of gas-dynamic rudders when the rocket turns to the target after exiting the transport and launch container.

There is also an important difference – the “Zircon”, in comparison with the “Onyx”, has a much more powerful energy of the accelerator (judging by the flame) and the departure of the rocket sharply upward. “Onyx” turns to a position close to horizontal, so as not to make a “slide”, not to rise high above its ship and thus not to unmask the location of the ship for the enemy at the time of the missile launch. It was not possible to do this with Zircon, which has obvious reasons – this rocket needs to accelerate and go to the top point of its trajectory as quickly as possible and along an energetically optimal trajectory, there is nothing to be done about it.

The fact that the Onyx developments will be used in a new rocket is very logical. On the other hand, from the same fact that the Zircon is similar to the Onyx, it clearly follows that in addition to another, but also a ramjet engine, our engineers have achieved some kind of breakthrough in terms of fuel, otherwise increase the “energy” of the rocket in the same dimensions it would be almost unreal. And the new fuel opens up new perspectives for improving Onyx in the future. For example, in terms of increasing the range (by the way, rumors about this are actively circulating).

In general, October 7, 2020 was a good day for our country. But for the Americans this day was clearly bad.

The big Russian problem

The basis of US influence in the world is military power. The basis of strength is its ability, as the Americans say, to “project”, that is, to attack other countries, no matter how far from the United States they are. The main instrument of this projection is the US Navy. The basis of the capabilities of the US Navy is its ability to destroy in a conventional war any possible fleets that can resist them, and to ensure dominance at sea by force. And this ability of theirs is based on the fact that no matter how the enemy tries to get them, he will not be able to do anything, while American submarines and carrier-based aircraft are strong enough to cope with anyone.

Submarines are another story, and repelling any missile strikes is the “strong point” of the US Navy’s surface forces. Missile cruisers and destroyers with the AEGIS system are capable of providing such a powerful air defense that its breakthrough without nuclear weapons could cost the existence of almost any aviation force opposing them. Of course, the defenses of the US Navy’s naval formations can both be broken through and bypassed by tactical tricks, but all this requires enormous forces, a mass of missiles, hard work by headquarters – and, alas, victims. And a lot. Huge.

And then in Russia “Zircon” appeared.

What is the problem with the defeat of the hypersonic missile in general and the Zircon in particular? With the fact that a “slow” interceptor missile must be fired “in the forehead” or almost “in the forehead”. It is, in professional terms, about “shooting with a small parameter.” “Parameter” is the “target heading parameter”, that is, the length of the perpendicular to the projection of the target missile’s combat path onto the earth or water surface, drawn from the point where the firing anti-aircraft missile system (SAM) is located. A small parameter means that the air defense missile system shoots a target missile almost “in the forehead”. Large – something from the side, from afar. Even simple logic dictates that the larger the heading parameter, the higher the speed of the interceptor missile should be. When the parameter exceeds certain values, it must first become higher than that of the downed target, and then significantly higher.

And from this moment, the Americans in the case of “Zircon” begin to have problems. AEGIS is a collective defense system. Operating under the control of this system, the ships represent one huge anti-aircraft missile system with dozens of canvases (antennas) of radar stations, hundreds or thousands of anti-aircraft missiles and hundreds of target guidance channels – this is what determines its effectiveness. The Americans form battle formations from their ships hundreds of kilometers deep, and when trying to attack one ship, the enemy receives fire from many ships. The same applies to approaching missiles – they are fired at from different directions.

But “Zircon” is too fast and firing at it with large heading parameters is impossible – an interceptor missile launched from somewhere from the side simply will not have time to intercept it. In theory, a missile that is twice as fast will solve these difficulties for the US Navy. But here they are faced with another problem – the size of the missile cell of the Mk41 launchers in which their missiles are located is too small. And it’s almost a disaster. They could very well create an interceptor missile capable of shooting down the Zircon – but it won’t fit into their launchers, and the larger launchers for larger missiles won’t fit on their ships.

This means that one ship, with normal, usual for them, the structure of ships in a group, simply cannot cover the other with its fire. Now each ship will have to fight on its own. Or it is necessary to gather in dense groups, several ships very close. In order to maintain the same depth of battle formations with such formations, they need more ships – at times. But they, with their economy, do not even pull what they have.

That is, the Americans do not have a normal answer to Zircon, protection from Zircon. Yes, they are capable of creating an interceptor that will shoot down the Zircon when fired head-on. But this is not even a half measure. The fire performance of their shipborne launchers is limited. If there are three or four Zircons in a salvo, then no interceptor will help, and the probability of intercepting a single missile is not high enough. The last test of “Zircon” is accompanied by a grave silence in the specialized American press. They understood everything.

It’s too early to rejoice

True, it’s too early to rejoice in us – all of the above problems of our opponents are not yet real, but potential. Moreover, there is a risk that they will remain so. Because today there are two very serious problems on the way to the successful use of Zircon against the US Navy, this time with Russia.

The first is target designation (TS). Russian designers and engineers managed to ensure missile guidance despite the plasma. But they did not completely remove this plasma. This means that the missile’s homing system will operate in the most severe conditions, and the Zircon will not have the information that a supersonic missile receives. And this requires very precise targeting. “Zircon” should go directly to the target, and if the target is too far away from the missile’s combat path, the missile may not detect it due to the interference induced by the plasma cloud. And even if he does, he will not be able to maneuver because of the tremendous speed.

And we have a problem with target designation – it simply does not exist in the form in which it was available for long-range anti-ship missiles during the Soviet era. There are no reconnaissance and target designation aircraft, there are no significant air reconnaissance forces in general.

There are no radar reconnaissance satellites either, and the Liana system provides only radio-technical and optical-electronic reconnaissance, which is not enough for automatic calculation of accurate data for shooting with reference to the coordinate system – and this is exactly what is needed. Roughly speaking, the Russian Navy cannot find the target and determine the bearing (direction) to it, its course and speed are accurate enough to fire at the distances over which the Zircon flies. On October 7, he shot at a target, the coordinates of which were known in advance, but in the war the situation will be radically different. And the target will not be stationary, but moving.

The second problem is the small number of media. Today, the Navy has three Zircon carriers for all fleets, all in the Northern Fleet: the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, from which these missiles flew, the admiral Kasatonov of the same type, and the Severodvinsk submarine.

Three carriers is absolutely not enough to threaten someone with the use of this missile.

At the end of the year, there may be four carriers – Kazan may be added to Severodvinsk. If we manage to hand over the frigate (formerly BOD) Marshal Shaposhnikov this year, then one carrier will appear in the Pacific Ocean. By 2028, there should be eight frigates of project 22350, and seven submarines. Part of the BOD will also receive these missiles. Project 20385 corvettes could be included in the list of carriers, but, apparently, they have huge problems with the radar complex – serious enough not to count on them at all.

Thus, Russia, in the person of Zircons, receives a “thing in itself” – a superweapon that has nothing to launch from and for which there is nothing to find a target. Is there a quick and inexpensive way out that would solve the target designation problem and at the same time dramatically and inexpensively increase the number of anti-ship missile launchers? There is.

Naval missile aviation

It is possible to quickly solve the problem of reconnaissance and command control, as well as to sharply increase the salvo by equipping the naval aviation of the Russian Navy with “Zircons”. Information exchange systems within the naval forces (including aviation) are now being created and can be installed on aircraft. Since the Zircon in terms of its weight and size characteristics coincides with the Onyx, then both the Su-30 and the Su-34 will be able to use it after modernization. The latter could possibly carry two missiles, if not even three. At the same time, aviation itself is a means of reconnaissance, and target designation with the help of a combat aircraft can be obtained with the most accurate.

This is precisely the most advantageous for Russia and dangerous for the enemy method of using the Zircon. This is what will make the US fears of “Zircon” a reality, and already irreversibly. And Russia has everything for this. All technologies, industrial base, pilots, money.

Once upon a time, our country gave the Indian Air Force the opportunity to use supersonic anti-ship missiles “Brahmos” from its Su-30s, but for ourselves “Onyxes” (an analogue of “Brahmos”) we did not accept into aviation armament. We must not allow the same mistake to be repeated with Zircon. This missile should hit the naval aviation. And then it actually turns out to be a superweapon.


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