Russian Navy Frigate Admiral Gorshkov to Test-launch Tsirkon Hypersonic Missiles in Barents Sea
Russian Navy Frigate Admiral Gorshkov to Test-launch Tsirkon Hypersonic Missiles in Barents Sea

Shipborne 3M22 Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile to Enter Service with Russian Navy This Year

The shipborne 3M22 Tsirkon hypersonic missile will be accepted for service in the Russian Navy this year. The missile is mass-produced and frigate Admiral Gorshkov has already received it as its armament. The Tsirkon hypersonic missile was engineered and is produced by the Research and Production Association of Machine-Building based in the town of Reutov in the Moscow Region (part of Tactical Missiles Corporation). The first test-launches of the Tsirkon hypersonic missile from the underwater carrier, the nuclear-powered submarine Severodvinsk. The Russian state-owned news agency Tass reported that the issue of accepting the hypersonic weapon for service is a standard set of procedures is under way to formalize documents on accepting the Tsirkon for service.

The 3M22 Tsirkon (3M22 Zircon, NATO reporting name: SS-N-33) is a scramjet powered maneuvering anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile produced by Russia, for the Russian Navy which has launch platforms on frigates and submarines. The missile represents a further development of the Hypersonic Experimental Flying Vehicle (HELA) developed by NPO Mashinostroyeniya. Tsirkon is believed to be a maneuvering, winged hypersonic cruise missile with a lift-generating center body. A booster stage with solid-fuel engines accelerates it to supersonic speeds, after which a scramjet motor with liquid-fuel in the second stage accelerates it to hypersonic speeds. The missile’s range is estimated to be 135 to 270 nautical miles (155 to 311 mi; 250 to 500 km) at low level, and up to 400 nmi (460 mi; 740 km) in a semi-ballistic trajectory; average range is around 400–450 km (250–280 mi; 220–240 nmi).

Russian Navy Frigate Admiral Gorshkov Tested Zircon Hypersonic Missile
Russian Navy Admiral Gorshkov-class guided missile frigate. (Photo by Russian MoD)

The high speed of the Tsirkon likely gives it better target-penetration characteristics than lighter subsonic cruise-missiles, such as Tomahawk. Being twice as heavy and almost eleven times as fast as Tomahawk, the Tsirkon has more than 242 times the on-cruise kinetic energy of a Tomahawk missile (?9 gigajoules, or equal to 2,150 kg TNT explosive energy). Its Mach 9 speed means that it cannot be intercepted by existing missile defence systems and its precision makes it lethal to large targets such as aircraft carriers. Tsirkon can travel at a speed of Mach 9 (6,900 mph; 11,000 km/h; 3.1 km/s). This has led to concerns that it could penetrate existing naval defense systems. Because it flies at hypersonic speeds within the atmosphere, the air pressure in front of it forms a plasma cloud as it moves, absorbing radio waves and making it practically invisible to active radar systems (plasma stealth).

In January 2023 Tsirkon was first deployed on the Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate which is lead ship of the Project 22350 series of frigates. Admiral Nakhimov is currently being modernised and is expected to start sea trials in 2023. The ship’s P-700 Granit anti-ship missiles are being replaced with the 3S14 universal VLS cells capable of carrying the Oniks, Kalibr and Tsirkon anti-ship cruise missiles; the vessel is to be equipped with 72 such missiles. The other active Kirov-class ship, Pyotr Velikiy, will undergo a similar procedure. After completion of their refit, the ships could carry 40–80 anti-ship cruise missiles of different types. Other platforms which will receive Tsirkons are Gremyashchiy-class corvettes (fitted with UKSK VLS cells during their construction), Yasen-class submarines, modernised Udaloy-class destroyers, and modernised Oscar-class submarines (Project 949AM).

The crew of the nuclear submarine missile cruiser Severodvinsk successfully completed the second test launch of the hypersonic cruise missile Zircon.
Russian Navy Yasen class nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Severodvinsk. (Photo by Russian MoD)

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