Amid growing concern in the West about the vulnerability of large warships to very fast sea-skimming missiles, Russian news agencies have reported a successful firing test of the long-range hypersonic Zircon weapon. Coincidentally, India has recently been test-firing new versions of the medium-range supersonic Brahmos missile, which is a joint venture between India and Russia and is based on the P-800 Onix, one of several supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles in service with the Russian Navy. With Russian help, India is developing a hypersonic Brahmos II version, which could be based on the Zircon.
The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) chose not to comment directly on the reported Zircon test. But within hours of those reports, it issued a muted statement that the State Armament Program 2018-2025 calls for development and fielding of “principally new specimens of hypersonic weapons” along with “artificial-intellect robotic-technical complexes and weapons on new physical principles (phenomenon)”. The news agencies reported that the Zircon had been launched from an unspecified sea-going platform, and had reached Mach 8.
According to unofficial sources, prototypes of the Zircon were test-launched first from a Tu-22M3 swing-wing bomber in 2012-13. Launches from a ground platform followed in 2015, with first success achieved last year. Completion of state trials on the whole family is targeted for 2020. To speed up this and other hypersonic projects, the Russian government merged the two missile houses Raduga and NPO Mashinostroenia under the control of Tactical Missile Corporation (TRV).
The Zircon is designated 3M22 by the Russian MoD and represents a further development of the HELA (acronym for Russian “Hypersonic Experimental Flying Vehicle”) that was on display at the MAKS airshow in 1995.
It is therefore believed to be a winged cruise missile with a lift-generating center body. A booster stage with solid-fuel engines accelerates it to a supersonic speed, at which point the scramjet motor of the second stage takes over. Its range is estimated to be from 135 to 270 nautical miles at low level, and up to 400 nautical miles in a semi-ballistic trajectory. The Zircon will be a family of missiles adaptable to various types of carriers and launchers, and so will be available in air-, surface- and underwater- launched versions.
The nuclear powered cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, which is currently being reworked in the shipyard at Severodvinsk, is expected to be the first capital ship to carry the Zircon, from 2018. Her current missile silos that carry the P-700 Granit (MoD designation 3M45) are being replaced with vertical launchers that can fire missiles of several types.
Exportable versions of the Zircon will be limited to less than 160 nautical miles (300 km), since Russia is a signatory to the Missile Control Technology Regime (MCTR). But now that India has signed up to the MCTR, the range of the current Brahmos design could be increased to 600 km, an Indian defense analyst told AIN.
The Brahmos is already operational as a land-attack missile with the Indian Army on wheeled erector-launchers. Last month, an enhanced version was test-fired from a mobile autonomous launcher “at a much higher range than the present,” according to a statement from the Brahmos joint venture. Brahmos is also already in service with the Indian Navy as an anti-ship missile. On April 21, an Indian warship test-launched a Brahmos missile against a land target for the first time. But test firing of an air-launched version from an Indian Air Force Su-30MKI has been repeatedly delayed due to integration problems. The latest published launch date is April.
The Brahmos has a different, “fire-and-forget” GPS guidance system to its current Russian counterparts that uses an Indian chip designated G3OM. The land-based target in the latest Indian test was 290 km distant from the INS Teg frigate that launched the Brahmos.
In theory, the range of the hypersonic Brahmos II could also now be extended to 600 km. It has been under development since an Indo-Russian agreement in 2008. A scale model of the Brahmos II was displayed at the Aero India show in 2013. At that show, the former BrahMos Aerospace CEO Sivathanu Pillai described it as "a completely new missile.” He continued: “In the future, cruise missiles can be intercepted by anti-missiles. Faced with this, we must work on the new version accelerating to above Mach 5 that can complete the mission. We need to make countermeasure systems and reduce missile's signatures. We need to make it from the proper materials able to withstand the heat from high speeds. It’s going to be a very complex technology…we need at least five years to develop it.”
Additional reporting by Neelam Mathews