Land-based ‘Zircon’ hypersonic missile – a strategic game changer


Combined with the Mach 12-capable ‘Kinzhal’ air-launched hypersonic missile and the Mach 28-capable ‘Avangard’ hypersonic glide vehicle, the ‘Zircon’ ensures swift destruction of any aggressor. Writes Drago Bosnic

In (American) English, when describing something incredibly difficult to do, the term “rocket science” is used. And indeed, rocket science, or rocketry for short, is a branch of science dealing with rocket and missile propulsion. There are multiple ways to create viable rocket propulsion. However, in this case, we’ll be talking about one very specific type of rocket, or more precisely, missile propulsion – scramjets. Supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet for short, is a form of airbreathing jet engine that uses the forward motion of the engine to produce thrust.

The main difference between a regular ramjet and a scramjet is that combustion takes place in supersonic airflow in the latter. Although the technology dates back to the 1950s, its practical implementation is quite recent. The first working scramjet in the world was the Russian “GLL Kholod” missile which flew in 1991, reaching a speed of nearly Mach 6, making it also the world’s first working hypersonic scramjet design. Unfortunately, the collapse of the USSR stopped funding for the project. The US government (NASA in particular) realized just how far behind Russia they were at the time, so they decided to provide funding for the project, with Russia sharing its know-how in return.

Officially starting in 1985, the Reagan administration launched the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) program intended to develop two X-30 aircraft capable of single stage to orbit (SSTO) flight, as well as horizontal takeoff and landing from conventional runways. However, the program was unsuccessful, with the US Congress deciding to cut funding for the project in 1993, after being told the two X-30 aircraft would cost at least $15 billion. After the project was scrapped, NASA approached Russia’s Central Institute of Aviation Motors (CIAM) and took part in tests conducted throughout the 1990s. After the cooperation ended, the US tried developing a similar capability. Still, after numerous projects, including the Boeing X-51 “Waverider”, which was a cooperative endeavor by the US Air Force (USAF), DARPA, NASA, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, the US lacks a working scramjet missile. The X-51 had four flight tests between 2010 and 2014, with the first three failing. The last test was the only success, after which the project was canceled.

At present, there are only a handful of countries possessing the knowledge and resources to conduct scramjet testing. This includes the US, China, India, Brazil and the EU (Germany and France in particular). However, there’s currently only one country in the world with a 100% functioning hypersonic scramjet missile – Russia. Despite the disastrous 1990s and the societal and economic shock it experienced, Russia still managed to not just successfully develop hypersonic scramjet missiles, but also get quite ahead of the rest of the world in this technology. The most prominent example of this is the 3M22 “Zircon”, a scramjet-powered maneuvering hypersonic cruise missile. Although it is officially an anti-ship missile, applications are most likely already multi-role, as is the case with nearly all other Russian missiles.

The “Zircon’s” official testing started in 2012 with air-launched prototypes fired from a Tu-22M3 long-range bomber. The tests soon moved to ground-based and ship-borne platforms, with the famed “Admiral Gorshkov” frigate being the most prominent surface combatant used as “Zircon’s” sea-based test-launching platform. By late 2021, it was reported that the missile had also been test-fired from the K-560 “Severodvinsk” Yasen-class nuclear-powered submarine, both from the surface and submerged. The total number of tests is classified, but the publicly acknowledged ones put the number of test launches at approximately two dozen, all of which have been successful. The “Zircon” has been improved heavily over the years, in terms of both speed and maneuverability. The missile is capable of achieving Mach 9 (approximately 3.1 km per second, or over 11,000 km/h), although some sources claim that it can go up to Mach 10.

The missile was salvo-launched in December 2021 and again in February 2022, both of which have been successful, confirming the serial production variant is up to the Russian military standards. In May, Russian MoD released a video of a new test-launch where the “Zircon” hit a sea target at a distance of over 1,000 km. The program of state trials was formally completed with that launch. However, Russia also announced that the land-based, coastal defense version of the missile would also be deployed, quite possibly in the coming months or by year’s end. A land-based “Zircon” hypersonic missile will be a crucial addition to the Russian military, much like the “Bastion-P” coastal missile system using the P-800 “Oniks” supersonic anti-ship missile. With its 1500 km range and Mach 9 speed, the “Zircon’s” speed is over 3 times greater, while its range is nearly double that of the P-800, which has also been used in Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine.

As “Zircon” flies at hypersonic speed within the atmosphere, the air pressure in front of it forms a plasma cloud, absorbing radio waves and making it effectively invisible to radar, resulting in what is colloquially known as plasma stealth. With plasma stealth, hypersonic speed and sea-skimming, intercepting an approaching “Zircon” is effectively impossible. Its sheer speed is such that the enemy would have mere seconds to detect, target and shoot down the incoming missile. However, the enemy would also need to be able to predict the missile’s flight path, which is simply impossible, as the missile is designed for extreme maneuverability, making predictions based on a ballistic trajectory null.

It’s not a question of if, but when Russia will deploy the land-based “Zircon” missile. With the sea-based version making large surface combatants effectively obsolete, the land-based one would make it pointless to deploy any large formations or even bother with setting up air and missile defenses on the mainland. Due to its speed, maneuverability and thermonuclear capability, the “Zircon” is yet another major strategic addition to the Russian military. Combined with the Mach 12-capable “Kinzhal” air-launched hypersonic missile and the Mach 28-capable “Avangard” hypersonic glide vehicle, the “Zircon” ensures swift destruction of any aggressor.

Drago Bosnic, independent geopolitical and military analyst.


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