This is the fourth in a series of posts regarding three Russian hypersonic missiles. The first post covered the concept of Circular Error Probable (CEP), a metric of accuracy. The second post covered the ground-launched Iskander short-range ballistic missile. Our last post covered the air-launched Kinzhal missile. The Zircon (Tsirkon), a hypersonic naval cruise missile, will be covered in this post.

The Zircon (Tsirkon)

The 3M22 Zircon (Tsirkon) is an air- or sea-launched, scramjet-propelled cruise missile. Like the Iskander and the Kinzhal, it is capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. The Zircon was originally conceived as a naval carrier-killer. It is meant to be deployed on both surface warships and submarines to attack aircraft carrier strike groups.

Unlike the Iskander and Kinzhal, which are propelled by a solid-fuel rocket, the Zircon is scramjet-propelled. It has a jet engine that relies on forward motion to drive air into the combustion chamber, at supersonic speed, and mix it with fuel for ignition. The platform must be supersonic for the scramjet to operate. The Zircon is therefore launched with a solid-fuel booster that accelerates it to supersonic speed so the scramjet can take over.

The Iskander and Kinzhal both have cylindrical bodies with an empennage. In some configurations, they have fold-out wings. The Zircon has a flat appearance because its fuselage is designed to provide lift, like a small airplane.

Figure 1. Russian Navy photo of Zircon launch from VLS system

The dimensions of the VLS tubes in Figure 1 allow analysts to deduce the dimensions of the Zircon. Its configuration, shown in Figure 2, is based on information collected from various sources in the Russian Federation and India. The two countries have formed a joint venture, and the Indian version of the Zircon is designated Brahmos II.

Figure 2. The Zircon cruise missile showing scramjet air intake and lifting body

Inspection of Figure 2 shows the air-breathing intake and the flat configuration of the lifting body. The sea-launched variant has been reported to reach speeds of Mach 7 to 9 and has accurately struck test targets at a range of 500km in cruise-missile configuration. When launched on a semi-ballistic trajectory, ranges of close to 750km have been documented. Ranges quoted in excess of 1,000km may be aspirational or associated with an air-launched platform.

Figure 3 makes a clear distinction between the solid-fuel rocket booster in blue-gray and the scramjet-propelled cruise missile in white. The air intake is chin-mounted below the lifting body.

Figure 3. Zircon rocket booster (blue-gray) and cruise missile (white)

A model of the Brahmos II, the Indian version of the Zircon, is shown in Figure 4. Information about the Zircon’s accuracy remains difficult to obtain. Guidance is almost certainly the subject of negotiation between Russian and Indian parties. The Indians claim Brahmos II will have similar characteristics to Zircon, but the Russians are controlling the release of the technology, and they are in the driver’s seat.