On March 30, the Russian Navy launched Kazan, the second upgraded Yasen-class project 885M submarine. The Navy will take delivery of the vessel in 2018. A total of seven Yasen class nuclear attack submarines are to be built by 2023. Kazan is an upgraded Project 885M design – an advanced version that is in many ways much more capable than the lead ship of the class, Severodvinsk, the first submarine in the series, entered service in 2016.
The Kazan’s armament includes 3M22 Zircon – a hypersonic cruise capable of speeds of around Mach 5.0-Mach 6.0 (7,400 kilometer per hour (4,600 mile per hour) expected to enter into production in 2018. At a cruising altitude of 30,000 m its kinetic energy at impact is 50 times higher than existing air-ship and ship-to-ship missiles. The projectile can travel covering 155 miles in 2.5 minutes, which is faster than a sniper's bullet. The enemy will not have enough time to get scared, let alone react.
For comparison, 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.
The Zircon missile needs no electronic countermeasure warfare and complex trajectory of flight. The sheer velocity makes it almost immune to interception by contemporary conventional technology. The Zircon can be programmed during its flight to search out and attack its target and could even reach a distance of about 500 kilometers, or even more.
The hypersonic weapon is almost invulnerable. 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.
The missile employs scramjet technology to reach its hypersonic speeds whereby propulsion is created by forcing air from the atmosphere into its combustor where it mixes with on-board fuel.
It uses an inlet where air is compressed and a combustor where the air is mixed with fuel. The acceleration is carried out via a reactive solid booster, with a scramjet used as the main engine. The missile has no moving parts.
The Zircon has both radar target seeker and an optical-electronic complex in charge of tracing and detecting targets also at hypersonic speed.
The missile is likely be fitted to Pyotr Velikiy, and Admiral Nakhimov – the nuclear-powered Kirov class battleships as well as Tu-160M2 Blackjack and PAK-DA strategic bombers and submarines, including the next generation Husky-class vessels.
According to the Independent, the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers will not be able to stop new high-speed Russian missiles by the time they enter service. It means the two ships, the first of which is not expected to be fully operational before 2020, could be rendered obsolete by this new development in hypersonic warfare despite costing up to £7 billion to build.
In its 2016 report, the US National Academies of Science concluded that America was falling behind Russia and China in the hypersonic weapons race. «The value of extreme speed coupled with maneuverability and altitude constitutes a potential threat to US capabilities», the paper reads.
The aircraft carrier strike groups (CSG) the US has relied on for dozens of years to ensure sea dominance will become vulnerable, with their relevance questioned. The Zircon will force 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. Harry J. Kazianis, executive editor of The National Interest, believes that such missiles «could turn America's supercarriers into multi-billion dollar graveyards for thousands of US sailors».
It’s worth to note that the new Russian weapon will render useless the NATO ballistic missile defense (BMD) program in Europe. The interceptors cannot counter such fast missiles as Zircon. 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. Perhaps, the advent of hypervelocity weapon will make the US more pliant on the BMD – a controversial issue to hinder the prospects for arms control agreements between the US and Russia.
Hypersonic missiles are game-changing weapons to make contemporary missile defense systems ineffective. Experts of the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, think they will «revolutionize military affairs in the same fashion that stealth did a generation ago and the turbojet engine did a generation before».
The success of Zircon program makes Russia the leader of the race. When Zircon enters 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 United States is also developing its own hypersonic weapons; they are not yet believed to be close to production. The ability to produce hypersonic weapons demonstrates Russia’s global leadership in missile technology.