Admiral Nakhimov, the nuclear-powered Kirov class Project 1144 (NATO reporting name Orlan) battlecruiser, undergoing a refit, will be the first warship of the Russian Navy to be armed with hypersonic missile when it returns to service in 2018. It will be followed by Pyotr Veliky, a sister ship, expected to complete its overhaul in 2022.
The term hypersonic technically refers to speeds faster than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5, equivalent to around 6,200kph at sea level and 5,300kph at high altitudes. A hypersonic missile is the most deadly weapon that cannot be countered. The only air defense system that can strike targets capable of speeds of around Mach 5.0-Mach 6.0 is the Russian S-500.
A hypersonic missile needs no electronic countermeasure warfare and complex trajectory of flight. Its sheer speed makes it almost immune to interception by contemporary defense systems.
Equipped with ten 3S-14 vertical launch systems, each ship will carry eighty cruise missiles onboard – a mixture of Zircon and long-range Kalibr cruise missiles.
The Russia 3M22 Zircon missile can cover a distance of 250km (155.3mi) in 2.5 minutes – much faster than a bullet fired from a sniper rifle. The enemy will not have enough time to get scared, let alone react. The weapon is currently in testing. It is expected to enter into production in 2018. Russia will be the only nation in the world to launch serial production of hypersonic weapons, leaving the US far behind.
The missile weights 5 tons. It is equipped with a scramjet engine type, which compresses air before it enters the combustion chamber. Only dynamic compression obtained via the intake device is used. The acceleration is carried out via a reactive solid booster, with a scramjet used as the main engine.
With the speed of Mach 6.2 (6,500 km/h) at a cruising altitude of 30,000 m (98,425 feet), the kinetic energy of impact is 50 times higher than an air-ship missile. For comparison, modern Russian anti-ship missiles, like Onyx, can reach up to Mach 2.6 (750 meters per second). The sea-based Kalibr cruise missile travels at a Mach 0.9 speed, but while approaching the target, its warhead speeds up to Mach 2.9.
Last February, Russia’s deputy defense minister, Army General Dmitry Bulgakov, told Sputnik news agency that a special fuel formula, which allows hypersonic aerial vehicles to fly five times faster than the speed of sound, was being developed.
The range is around 250 miles (400km). Some sources say it could be up to 620 miles (1,000km). The Zircon will have both radar target seeker and an optical-electronic complex in charge of tracing and detecting targets also at hypersonic speed.
The missile will also be built in air and submarine-launched versions, including the Husky-class submarines. It could be carried by the Tupolev Tu-160M2 Blackjack and the developmental Tupolev PAK-DA stealth bomber.
Admiral Cecil Haney, the head of US Strategic Command, warned that American anti-missile and anti-aircraft defense systems would be virtually incapable of intercepting the Russian hypersonic systems expected to be deployed soon.
Captain (ret.) Jerry Hendrix, a defense analyst for the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, says anti-ship cruise missiles would force US Navy carrier strike groups (CSGs) to stay hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from the enemy's coast, which would make strikes from their carrier-based aircraft against ground targets ineffective.
Hypersonic missiles capable of high accuracy and great speed are game changing weapons, rendering contemporary missile defense systems ineffective. These weapons will «revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that stealth did a generation ago and the turbojet engine did a generation before», according to a study by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
With the success of Zircon program, Russia appears to lead the race. It will not be long before the weapon enters into service to make targets – especially large naval warships, such as aircraft carriers – more vulnerable to attack.
The advent of hypersonic missiles can change the concept of air defense and make researchers look for new ways to counter the hypersonic weapons. It could be direct energy systems or something still to be invented. Stealth technology will cease to be the decisive factor for enabling missiles to penetrate the enemy’s defenses.
US ballistic missile defense (BMD) program will lose relevance. The interceptors will be of little use in countering the hypersonic weapons like Zircon. Actually, it was the NATO BMD systems deployed near Russian borders that prompted the development of the new missile system.
The United States has relied on its aircraft carrier strike groups (CSG) for dozens of years in its effort to ensure global sea power dominance. With the Zircon in service, the relevance of CSGs will be questioned to make the work of US war planners much harder.
These game changing weapons can be conventional and nuclear-tipped bringing to the fore the need to address the problem of arms control before an unfettered arms race begins. At present, it seems to be a faraway prospect. One thing is certain – the ability to produce hypersonic weapons, something nobody else can do – demonstrates Russia’s leadership in missile technology.