What To Know About Putin's Hypersonic Missiles
Vladimir Putin has used what's believed to be the world’s only bonafide hypersonic missile battery, which are capable of evading air defenses. So, what are the missiles, and what do they mean for the war?
This article was updated on Friday March 7, 2023, to reflect recent developments.
Russia's launching of six hypersonic missiles against Ukraine is a major development in the war. Critical infrastructure and residential buildings were hit Thursday in at least 10 regions and six people were killed in the Lviv region, some 440 miles from the front line. The missiles were launched from Russian aircraft and carriers in the Black Sea.
During January's announcement of the activation of the so-called "Zircon" missiles (it is not clear how many exist), Putin boasted that "It has no analogues in any country in the world,” according to TASS.
But what exactly is the Zircon missile? Why is Russia deploying it now, and what are the implications of its use?
What are Zircon Hypersonic Missiles?
Zircon (officially: 3M22 Zircon) is an anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile that can reach speeds of over 9,500 kilometers per hour (6,000 miles per hour), around nine times faster than the speed of sound. It can accurately pinpoint targets at a range of more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).
Its testing began aboard the Admiral Gorshkov ship in July 2021.
Russia sees the weapons as a way to pierce the increasingly sophisticated U.S. missile defense systems. "This ship, armed with 'Zircons', is capable of delivering pinpoint and powerful strikes against the enemy at sea and on land," Shoigu said.
The Zircon could easily break through the air-defense Patriot missile system that the U.S. pledged to Ukraine during President Volodymyr Zelensky’s December visit to Washington.
Are there other Hypersonic Missiles being developed?
Putin also claimed this weapon had “no analogues in any country in the world” and would “reliably protect Russia from potential external threats.”
In October 2021, Putin announced that Russia had overtaken the U.S. in the hypersonic weapons race, one which began when the U.S. began working on its own Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability which aimed to hit an enemy target anywhere in the world within one hour.
Along with the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which entered combat duty in 2019, the Zircon will play a central role in Russia's hypersonic arsenal.
TASS reported that Russia is also armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, weapons which have a range of up to 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles).
Russia has previously used hypersonic Kinzhal (Dagger) missiles in Ukraine which were used in the early months of the war to destroy an underground missile warehouse and aviation ammunition base in the western part of Ukraine.
Why is Putin deploying Zircons now?
It certainly seems curious that Putin has deployed the ship and the missiles only now: he had them both in his arsenal before his full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
But the deployment of the Admiral Gorshkov served as a reason for Putin to celebrate live on state TV despite Russia's previously large losses in Ukraine.
Putin’s move sends a clear and pointed signal to the West: Russia is not backing down.