The hypersonic arms race going on between Russia, China and the United States has seen its fair share of legitimate developments happen alongside a flurry of international rhetoric that sometimes doesn’t seem quite so legitimate. Now, the head of Russian ship-maker United Shipbuilding Corporation, Alexei Rakhmanov, is claiming that all modern warships in the Russian Navy, as well as all future ships currently slated for production, will serve as launch platforms for Russia’s scramjet powered, hypersonic missile dubbed “Zircon.” It’s hard to say for sure whether that statement falls under the former or latter category.
In order to qualify as hypersonic, a platform must be able to sustain speeds in excess of Mach 5, or 3,836 miles per hour. To provide you a frame of reference regarding just how fast that is, America’s workhorse Tomahawk cruise missiles that we so regularly rely on for “missile diplomacy” with nations like Syria fly at only around 550 miles per hour. Even the AIM-120 AMRAAM advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, used to close with and destroy supersonic fighter jets, tops out at around 3,045 miles per hour or Mach 4.
The sheer speed of a missile traveling in excess of Mach 5 creates two fundamental new problems for missile defense. The first is that the transfer of kinetic energy, when struck by any object moving at hypersonic speed, is so great that these platforms have the potential to be massively destructive even without explosive warheads. The second is that these platforms are moving so fast that no existing missile defense technology can spot, track and intercept them. In other words, once a hypersonic missile is launched (and assuming its targeting apparatus functions properly) there’s nothing one can do to stop it from reaching its target. In our current technological sphere, hypersonic missiles are downright impossible to defend against.
Older cruise missile platforms, like Russia’s Cold War era missile sub “Irkutsk,” are currently undergoing upgrades that will enable the aging platforms to carry the advanced Zircon missile.
Zircon, according to Russian claims, is capable of engaging both land- and sea-based targets and travels at speeds that approach 7,000 miles per hour. In multiple tests, the Zircon platform has been said to even exceed Mach 8.
It seems that, unlike some of Russia’s other high profile missile endeavors, Zircon may be the real deal. But does this mean we’ll really see it in service aboard the entirety of the Russian fleet? Well, that all depends on the timeline. If Rakhmanov meant that these missiles will see deployment on all large vessels in the near future, this latest announcement is little more than the sort of Russian marketing (read: propaganda) we’ve become accustomed to seeing out of Moscow. However, if Rakhmanov was making a generalized statement about the future of Russia’s military, than the economics become a bit more feasible.
Russia simply can’t afford to modify its entire fleet (even if the modifications are light) with any real expediency. It also can’t manufacture and distribute Zircon missiles fast enough to make this promise a reality any time soon — thanks in no small part to Russia’s struggling economy, worsened at regular intervals by new sanctions put in place over the nation’s aggressive behavior.
Will Russia’s Navy one day be absolutely lousy with Zircon missiles? It seems entirely likely. But in a spend-off like the hypersonics race, the United States is far better equipped to even the playing field than Russia is at maintaining its lead, despite its apparent head start in fielding hypersonic platforms.
It seems entirely feasible that while Russia’s hypersonic platforms will see service sooner, America can afford to ensure its platforms are more widely distributed and employed in the early years of this new technology taking hold.