Russian Navy to Be First to Field Hypersonic Cruise Missiles on Submarines
Testing starts next year
The Russian Navy is expected to be the first country to field hypersonic cruise missiles on its submarines, potentially giving it some strategic advantages in naval warfare. The greater speed will better enable Russia to strike time-critical targets and will increase the missile’s survival rate against modern air defenses.
The plan, originally reported in Russian sources in March, is for the first test launch from a submarine to take place next year. This will involve firing a Zircon type missile from the latest nuclear powered cruise missile submarine K-561 Kazan, which is already armed with subsonic and supersonic missiles. The timing may have been prophetic given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quip to sell hypersonic missiles to President Donald Trump during the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, at the end of June. The U.S. has been researching similar technologies but does not have an equivalent weapon in its inventory.
Zircon can reportedly fly at Mach 8 (i.e. 8 times the speed of sound) with some estimates being even higher. For comparison the Tomahawk cruise missiles carried by U.S. Navy and Royal Navy submarines fly at around Mach 0.75.
The new weapon is a natural development of Russia’s experience with cruise missile submarines. For much of the Cold War the missiles carried by Russian submarines were focused on hitting ships at sea, particularly the U.S. Navy’s formidable aircraft carriers. It was not until the conflict in Syria that Russia began using submarine-launched cruise missiles in a similar way to the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk missile; as a long-range surgical strike weapon.
Most of the submarine-launched cruise missiles fired at Syria have been subsonic Kalibr type weapons launched from smaller Kilo class diesel-electric submarines. The missiles are likely loaded aboard the submarines at Russia’s base in Syria. They then drive out into the Mediterranean, submerge, turn around and shoot the missiles back over their base into Syria. It’s almost a token effort, but it may have an impact on the export market for such weapons. Earlier this month another Kilo class submarine launched another variant of the Kalibr cruise missile. The twist: it wasn’t a Russian boat. Instead it was a submarine which has been exported to Algeria. Other export customers of Kalibr missiles include China, Vietnam and India.
The Zircon will be a significant advancement over Kalibr. Russia is planning a fleet of 8 sister-ships of Kazan to carry it and these will be joined by future attack submarines which will also be designed to carry the new missile. My analysis of Russian submarine building programs suggests that by 2030 Russia may field 8 submarines with Zircon missiles, and 17 by 2040.
Zircon is not the only ground-breaking weapon being developed by Russia. It is also developing the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile with virtually unlimited range, and the Poseidon nuclear-powered mega torpedo.