Russia's New Tsirkon Cruise Missile
Since Russia’s entry into the conflict in Syria in September 2015, the top brass and defense ministry have devoted increasingly more attention to the procurement of high-precision weapons systems. The Russian military has used various types of conventional cruise missiles during its operations in Syria, which has provided ample opportunity to combat test these systems. Consequently, the argument within defense circles in Moscow has moved significantly toward favoring the adoption of greater numbers of such strike systems in the future. This also includes furthering the development of prototype missiles and new systems to assist in the overall drive to enhance this emerging capability. The extent to which such efforts are afforded high priority can be demonstrated by the numerous statements from the Russian top brass and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who have repeatedly suggested that strengthening Russia’s high-precision capabilities might reduce the country’s dependence on nuclear deterrence. In the latest example illustrating this trend, recent media coverage has focused on developing the new 3M22 hypersonic cruise missile as part of the 3K22 Tsirkon (“Zircon”) system, which has resulted in hyperbolic claims about its potential speed (Vg-news.ru, April 17; see EDM, May 1).
Reporting concerning tests of the Tsirkon missile have emerged intermittently since the project commenced in 2011. However, a recent test of the system on April 15 was proffered in the Russian military media as a breakthrough in the development of the hypersonic cruise missile. By April 21, the respected Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye highlighted the missile test and its alleged breakthrough flight; reaching Mach 8 (eight times the speed of sound). The article cited an unnamed source in the defense industrial complex (oboronnyi promyshennyi kompleks—OPK) saying the test at sea resulted in the Tsirkon missile achieving 2,648 meters per second, covering 160 kilometers in one minute. On this basis, according to the article, the Tsirkon 3M22 will prove to be unstoppable by any adversary’s defenses. Though much of the content represented accurate insight into the design and testing as well as intended platforms for the new missile, the article played up the “Mach 8” claim. Moreover, it specifically noted that Western sources had reported on the test with a high degree of alarm as to its implications vis-à-vis the future military balance. It also asserted that Western commentary on the Tsirkon 3M22 implies the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has no defense against the missile (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 21).
The facts surrounding the prototype missile are relatively clear. The system and missile complex have been in development since 2011, under the Special Machine Building Design Bureau (Konstruktorskoye Byuro Spetsialnogo Mashinostroyeniya—KBSM), a subsidiary of Almaz-Antey. It is intended for use on the refitted Petr Velikiy and the Admiral Nakhimov heavy cruiser ships, as well for introduction on the new Husky-class submarines. The launch tubes for these naval assets are also compatible with Oniks and Kalibr anti-ship and sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM), respectively, while an air-launched version is also planned. The Tsirkon missile has a reported strike range beyond 400 km, though the specifications remain classified. Further tests and subsequent procurement are scheduled for 2018–2020, with the aim of fully introducing the system by 2025 (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 21; Ekspert, April 15).
None of these issues are in dispute; the point of departure relates to the mega-speed breakthrough, which has all the hallmarks of OPK-inspired exaggeration. The pointers to this are found in the ontology of the alleged achievement of Mach 8. All reporting stems from a single piece in TASS, even though that article actually noted there was no official confirmation of the Mach 8 flight speed. Earlier speeds in tests had recorded Mach 5 or 6 (Lenta.ru, Tatar-inform.ru, April 15).
By April 26, with the Mach 8 reporting proliferating in the media, Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer offered a more sober assessment, stating that the missile remains under development. The piece disputed the likelihood of the supposed record-high velocity of the tested missile on April 15, noting previously achieved top speeds of Mach 5/6 in earlier tests, and stressed the experimental aspects of the Tsirkon. The author concluded that the state tests may not end until 2020, offering much scope for further improvement and remedying any flaws (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, April 26).
Most reporting to date indicates that the Tsirkon is a work in progress and stresses that it will be offered to the Navy as part of a wider set of compatible strike systems, including Kalibr and Oniks cruise and anti-ship missiles. Most tests have also been on land, and the speculation that tests could soon be completed is likely to prove premature. However, the Tsirkon, like other high-precision strike systems, fits a long-running pattern to push the Russian military to adopt and integrate high-precision weapons—a goal that received a significant boost based on the use of cruise missiles in Syria (Militaryrussia.ru, April 22).
The context, of course, is the ongoing discussion on the new State Armaments Program to 2025 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV) (see EDM, April 25). While some Russian sources quickly spread the idea that the new cruise missile will reach speeds of Mach 8—which, in turn, became embedded in Western reporting—there was also evidence of circumspection in the original articles pertaining to the April 15 test flight. It was a case where “fake news” or “information warfare” might be confused for what it was: misreporting based on a single source. On this occasion the “source” within the OPK undoubtedly wanted to “talk up” the potential of the new Russian cruise missile, since the finalization of the GPV to 2025 will determine how many such missile systems will ultimately be procured.
Developing a new cruise missile system takes time, requiring lengthy experimentation and efforts to tailor the design to the needs of the military. While, to date, it is unlikely to have achieved Mach 8, the Tsirkon’s real significance lies in the extent to which the procurement of such assets will become more commonplace as the Russian Armed Forces seek to greatly enhance their precision-strike capabilities in the future. Misreporting, exaggeration and defense company interests jockeying for position in the final rush to the GPV to 2025 are unsurprising. Much more challenging is the process of systems integration: seeing the development of such new missile systems to completion and seamlessly introducing these into the weapons inventory. Despite the relatively low numbers of precision-strike systems used by the Russian military during operations in Syria, it seems the overall argument has been convincingly won by the modernizers—securing a bright future for domestic cruise missile manufacturers.