Russia’s New Tsirkon Cruise Missile

May 4, 2017

The Jamestown Foundation:

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).

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