While addressing the Russian Federal Assembly on February 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin touched on the Zircon, describing it as “a hypersonic missile able to accelerate to about Mach 9.” The Russian president said this is “yet another innovation, work on which proceeds successfully and shall be completed on schedule.” It has a firing range of “over one thousand kilometers” (540 nm) and “is able to destroy both sea-going and land targets,” he added.
Notably, Putin’s figures are considerably above those previously suggested by local and overseas experts, who believed that Zircon’s firing range would fall somewhere between 400 and 500 km [215-270 nm], and top speed limited to between Mach 5 and 6. According to Putin, the Zircon is primarily intended to arm seagoing platforms such as “serially made surface warships and submarines, including those that are already operational and being built—those that come with the Caliber cruise missile launchers. Because of this, this is not going to be [too] expensive for us.”
At the same time, reports surfacing in the Russian media insist that the baseline version will be followed by a lighter one for deployment on strategic bombers. The most likely candidate is the Tupolev Tu-160/M/M2 (NATO: “Blackjack”) whose performance permits the removal of the solid-fuel booster in the baseline naval version. In the Russian arsenals of advanced air-launched anti-shipping weapons, it would complement the lighter Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile intended for the MiG-31BM/K (“Foxhound”) heavyweight multirole fighters that Putin unveiled during Federal Assembly Address 2018. In between those two, there is a Kh-32 aero-ballistic weapon (improved AS-4 “Kitchen”) intended for the Tu-22M3M ("Backfire") bomber.
Russia appears to have three programs for heavyweight high-speed cruise missiles for applications on aviation platforms. Technically, they employ different propulsion systems: rocket engines running on powder or two-component liquid fuel, and an air-breathing scramjet. Possibly a simultaneous development of all three has been attempted by the Tactical Missile Corporation (TRV) to ensure that at least one technology produces the desired effect: to attain a top speed of more than 9,000 km/h.
Information on Zircon remains scarce. Reportedly, its GRAU index is 3M22 and NATO codename is SS-N-33. It is being developed by the Scientific Production Organization for Machinery-building, or NPO Mash. The body length is estimated at 10 to 11 meters (32-36 feet), warhead weight at 300 to 400 kg (660-880 pounds), and peak altitude along the trajectory at 30 to 40 km (100,000-130,000 feet). The baseline naval version has a two- or even three-stage configuration with acceleration at launch and climb achieved through solid-fuel boosters. An air-breathing scramjet takes over in cruise and terminal stages of flight. Reportedly, the first firing trials took place in March 2016, followed by a launch from a naval platform 11 months later, in which development prototypes accelerated to Mach 8.
General Victor Bondarev, former Russian air force commander and now head of the defense and security committee of the Russian Parliament (Duma), said that the Zircon is already “in the arsenal of the Russian armed forces” and that its deployment will be undertaken within the framework of the State Armament Program 2018-2027. More recently, Rear Admiral Vsevolod Khmyrov said that in the case of being launched from a coastal location, the Zircon can hit a warship 500 km off the coastline in less than five minutes. This would give air defenses insufficient time to detect the incoming threat and react to it, he explained.
Since there are no official images available, the Zircon is often depicted in the international media bearing an outward resemblance to the Mach 5 Boeing X-51 Waverider, but the BrahMos II (or IIK), exhibited in a scaled form at AeroIndia’2013, may bear a closer resemblance to the Zircon, since the former is likely be an exportable version of the latter. It is believed that the key technologies for the new missile have been tested on a number of experimental vehicles from TsIAM, (Central Institute of Aviation Motors named after Baranov), and TsAGI (Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute named after Zhukovsky). Apparently, the Zircon development benefited from earlier testing of the MKB Raduga’s GELA Hypersonic Experimental Flight Vehicle, NATO AS-X-21). Demonstrated at MAKS’1995, this 15-tonne winged missile reached between Mach 4 and Mach 5.