Why Russia sent carriers of nuclear missiles Zircon near Cuba

On June 12, the Russian Navy’s frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” and nuclear submarine “Kazan” are expected to arrive in Cuba, accompanied by a tanker and a tugboat. This move appears to be a show of strength, aiming to “unsettle” the U.S. with Zircon missiles stationed in Cuba, using two of Russia’s latest vessels. 

yasen-m submarine russia
Photo credit: Naval Post

The U.S. has responded to this Russian maneuver. Washington’s stance can be summarized as vigilant but not overly concerned. The situation is quite tense, given that Russia has opted to position its newest ships near the U.S. fleet. Yet, it’s also worth considering how this move might influence Russia’s allies. 

By deploying their Zircon missile carriers to Cuba, which hasn’t publicly supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the Kremlin seems to be testing the waters. Despite Cuba’s neutrality, Ukrainian analysts note that Cuba doesn’t obstruct the recruitment of mercenaries for Russia’s forces. Therefore, it’s likely that Russia seeks to use this naval visit as a strategic gesture to exert influence, at least on Cuba itself.

Tsirkon or Tsircon or Zircon missile
Photo credit: Sputnik News

Now, let’s delve into what weapons Cuba currently possesses and how this may attract the attention of “Russian emissaries.” Cuba’s arsenal includes several hundred T-62s and PT-76s, though these models are over 60 years old. The total number of fighting vehicles is barely over 400 units. 

Regarding artillery, the situation in Cuba is not much better. According to The Military Balance 2023, Cuba has approximately 1.7 thousand artillery systems. However, the majority of these date back to the second half of the 1940s to the 1960s. 

The core of Cuba’s air defense consists of various S-75 and S-125 systems, some of which have been upgraded using T-55 chassis. When it comes to combat aviation, Cuba has five MiG-29 and MiG-21 aircraft, though their current technical status is unknown. The country also has 12 Mi-35 helicopters and 20 Mi-8 helicopters, but again, their operational status is uncertain.

Why Russia sent carriers of nuclear missiles Zircon near Cuba
Photo credit: Oryx

The Cuban Navy holds a unique position as an exotic force. According to The Military Balance, the Cuban Navy operates two Rio Damuji project frigates, originally converted from 1970s Spanish trawlers. These frigates are primarily armed with two P-22 missile launchers, which are the export version of the P-15 “Termit.” Additionally, the Cuban fleet includes six Project 205 Osa boats with the P-15 missile launchers removed—the launchers themselves repurposed into coastal complexes known as Bandera IV—and four Rubezh coastal missile complexes also utilizing the P-15 Termit. 

At first glance, it might seem that Russia views Cuba merely as a potential source of mercenaries for its conflict against Ukraine, especially considering that the naval technologies mentioned appear to belong to the era of Fidel Castro. However, it’s important to remember that during the USSR era, Cuba frequently acted as a proxy in Moscow’s conflicts across the African continent. 

Given this historical context, it is plausible that Moscow still entertains the notion of reviving its Soviet-era African engagements, potentially deploying Cuban forces equipped with rare T-62 and PT-76 tanks for these operations. 

Idea from Moscow: use T-62M as artillery against Germany's Leopard
Photo credit: EurAsian Times

Otherwise, Zircon is probably the best of the “hypersonic” packages of the Russian Federation. The 3M22 Zircon, also known as Tsirkon, is a hypersonic cruise missile developed by Russia. It is designed to be launched from both surface ships and submarines, making it a versatile weapon in naval warfare. The missile is part of Russia’s effort to modernize its military capabilities and maintain a strategic edge. 

The dimensions of the 3M22 Zircon are not officially disclosed, but it is estimated to be around 8-10 meters in length. The missile’s diameter is believed to be approximately 0.6-0.7 meters. These dimensions allow it to be compatible with existing launch systems on Russian naval vessels. 

The propulsion system of the Zircon is a scramjet engine, which allows it to achieve hypersonic speeds. A scramjet, or supersonic combustion ramjet, is an air-breathing engine that operates efficiently at speeds above Mach 5. This propulsion method enables the Zircon to reach speeds of up to Mach 9, significantly reducing the reaction time for enemy defenses.

tsircon missile circon missile hypersonic missile
Photo creditL iStock Illustration

The technical characteristics of the 3M22 Zircon include its ability to maneuver at high speeds, making it difficult to intercept. The missile is designed to fly at altitudes ranging from 30 to 40 kilometers, where it can take advantage of lower air resistance to maintain its hypersonic velocity. Its guidance system is believed to incorporate both inertial navigation and active radar homing, ensuring high accuracy. 

The Zircon can be equipped with various types of warheads, including conventional high-explosive and potentially nuclear warheads. This flexibility allows it to be used in a wide range of tactical and strategic scenarios. The missile’s destructive power, combined with its speed and maneuverability, makes it a formidable threat to both land and sea targets. 

The operational range of the 3M22 Zircon is estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 kilometers. This range allows it to strike targets at significant distances, providing a strategic advantage in both offensive and defensive operations. The exact range may vary depending on the launch platform and specific mission parameters.

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