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Nov 24, 2021
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“Zircon” does not sink: a hypersonic missile cannot be squeezed into a submarine

Photo: PA Images / TASS

Successful tests of the Russian Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile have attracted close attention all over the world for several years now. Its characteristics are truly amazing, as evidenced by the firing of this rocket from the frigate “Admiral Gorshkov”, of which at least ten have already been fired. “Zircon” reached the level of state tests, but with launches from submarines, everything turned out to be somewhat more complicated.

The main purpose of the Zircon is an anti-ship missile, which can also hit ground targets, both static and mobile. Its carriers should be surface ships, submarines, strategic bombers (the first test launches were carried out from air carriers), it is likely that ground launchers will also be used. By analogy with the supersonic missile P-800 “Onyx”, which is used both on ships (this is the MRK of project 21631 Buyan-M, corvettes of project 20385 of the Guarding type, frigates of project 22350 of the Admiral Gorshkov type), as well as on nuclear submarines project 885 “Ash”. In the land version “Onyx” is used in the mobile coastal missile system “Bastion”.

Zircon was also widely used, including for the rearmament of Project 949A nuclear submarines of the Antey type, which are now equipped with several outdated P-700 Granit heavy anti-ship missiles, as well as for equipping the fourth generation nuclear submarine of Project 885 Ash M “. There are only two of the latter in the Russian Navy – Severodvinsk and Kazan, seven more are under construction, the dates of their arrival at the Pacific and Northern Fleets are expected from December this year (K573 Novosibirsk) until 2028 (Voronezh and Vladivostok “). Submarines, as they say, are on the way, but with the use of a new rocket for launches from a submerged position, everything is not as successful as with firing from surface ships.

And if the frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” has already been targeted by “Zircons”, then little is known about launches of hypersonic missiles from a submerged position. It was reported about two successful test launches, which were made by the nuclear submarine “Severodvinsk” in October this year in the waters of the White Sea from the surface and submerged position. Details are not disclosed, neither range nor accuracy is disclosed. And if about the last shooting “Zircon” from the ship to the president Vladimir Putin personally reported by the Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu – hit exactly a floating target, but no vigorous reports have yet been made about firing from submarines. Bad rocket? By no means, it has not yet been possible to “shove” it into the existing types of Russian nuclear submarines.

If it is corny to assess the situation, then we can draw an analogy – an 18-gauge cartridge cannot be fired from a 12-gauge hunting rifle. Theoretically, of course, it is possible if you wind electrical tape on a thinner cartridge in order to tightly insert it into the channel of the gun, but the effect will be doubtful, and it can easily break the barrel in such an experiment. So it is not yet possible to place the Zircon in the launchers of the current nuclear submarines, at least for the safe firing of new missiles. Actually, for surface firing, only the frigate “Admiral Gorshkov” is still used, which is equipped with a universal launcher, “sharpened” for launches of “Onyx”, “Caliber” and now also “Zircon”. It is likely that all subsequent frigates of the 22350 M project with an increased displacement (12 of these are planned to be built) will have a “gun” under a hypersonic caliber.

– For a submarine, the range of its weapons is of particular importance, – says Admiral Vladimir Komoedov… “The Sineva and Bulava missiles in service are capable of reaching targets for more than eleven thousand kilometers and have enormous destructive power. “Zircon” is a more point weapon, which, with a sufficiently small TNT equivalent of two to three hundred kilograms, is capable of acting no less effectively, including through a dynamic strike when hitting underwater objects, as well as when striking surface ships. Figuratively speaking, a pellet with such a speed is capable of splitting a frigate or destroyer or causing serious damage to a cruiser or an aircraft carrier – to disable them.

With regard to the placement of “Zircons” on submarines – this is just a matter of technical thought and time for their testing. Almost any project can be upgraded to use new hypersonic missiles. Considering that the new generation nuclear submarines, in addition to heavy ballistic missiles, are being converted to launch cruise missiles, then both “Caliber” and “Zirkons” can be loaded into these silos. This is a melee weapon, but it is also extremely necessary in confrontation with a potential enemy.

So what about the underwater tests of the Zircons? It can be assumed that the launches from the Severodvinsk nuclear submarine that took place in October were not entirely successful. Apparently, there were no casualties, but now TASS, citing its sources in the military-industrial complex, declares that test launches of hypersonic missiles from the nuclear submarine have been postponed until 2024. Until the submarine of project 885 M “Perm” appears in the fleet. Its entry into service is scheduled for 2025, so it is clarified that the tests of “Zircon” may be postponed to this time.

If you look at the schedule for the delivery of the nuclear submarines of this project by the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC), then, in addition to the Novosibirsk expected in December, in 2022 the Pacific Fleet and the Northern Fleet will receive Krasnoyarsk and Arkhangelsk. These submarines are in a high degree of readiness, they are being built taking into account the new requirements of the customer, but they will not be able to take part in the tests of the Zircon. All expect only the appearance of the nuclear submarine “Perm”, the design features of which will allow us to develop the theme of launches from a submerged position. Accordingly, subsequent submarines of Project 885 M will be oriented towards the use of “Zircons”. So for at least another five years, the Russian submarine fleet will use Onyx, Granite, Shkval and other missile and torpedo weapons.

Here you can see that the current P-800 Onyx missile, known in the West under the name Yakhont (according to NATO classification SS-N-26 Strobile – “pine cone”) has proven itself very well both as part of the Russian Navy and and in export performance. As the American edition of The National Interest noted earlier, recognizing that no navy has a means of defense against the Zircon, the newest Russian missile is a deeply modernized version of the P-800 Onyx anti-ship missile, known since Soviet times. And it was on its basis that the supersonic Russian-Indian rocket “BrahMos” was developed, which in the future was supposed to become a hypersonic one. Russia brought the matter to the end on its own and showed the world its own hypersound in the form of “Zircon”.

There is nothing surprising here, this is a common practice in the global arms production. All subsequent modifications of domestic tanks grew out of the “overcoat” of the main Russian medium tank T-72, the Su-27 fighter spawned the entire further line of new and modernized “dry” tanks, up to the fifth generation. A similar development of new missiles, using the best past experience, is also present in rocketry, including in the family of anti-ship missiles. Therefore, it can be argued that the current “Zircon” was born on the structural basis of a similar rocket. And if we consider that more powerful and more accurate than the P-800, it was never created abroad, then it was not a sin to use the “former stock”. At the same time, the fundamental difference between “Zircon” and “Onyx” lies precisely in the tremendous speed of the former, which provided the “stone” in the new cut “NPO Mashinostroyenia” with a perfect superiority over all other competitors.

The anti-ship “Onyx” successfully serves in the Russian Navy. Moreover, it is actively being improved – it is known that a new sea-based cruise missile “Onyx-M” has been developed with a maximum firing range of 800 kilometers with increased accuracy of hitting sea and ground targets. This is already a full-fledged cruise missile with a speed of 2.5 times the speed of sound, with a warhead of 250 kilograms, capable of piercing an aircraft carrier, crumbling its insides and making the take-off deck unusable for aircraft.

Note that “Onyx-M” and “Zircon” have one “dad” – “NPO Mashinostroyenia”, which brings one of the “brothers” to perfection, and drives the other to stayer distances. Hypersound is a special topic, everyone is fixated on it, including domestic developers of missile weapons, and here they have achieved real results. Even the Americans, who conduct their active tests with hypersound, do not doubt the incredible speed of the Zircon. But “Zircon” so far, as it seems, has not been brought to perfection in terms of use from a submerged position. Here, naturally, the absence of an underwater platform from which successful launches could be carried out also affects. All this is just a matter of time.

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