Russia has tested a new hypersonic missile, reportedly striking a target at sea for the first time. The 3M22 Zircon missile travels at hypersonic speeds, or greater than Mach 5, giving enemy defenses minimal time to detect and then engage the incoming threat.
Current U.S. Navy defensive systems would likely struggle to deal with the Zircon and other hypersonic anti-ship missiles, but the service is working to adapt existing missiles to intercept new high-speed threats.
The Zircon missile traveled at a top speed of Mach 8, or 6,138 miles per hour. (That’s 1.705 miles per second! A 5.56 bullet fired from a U.S. Army M4 carbine, by comparison, travels at just over half a mile per second.) Zircon’s zip easily puts it in the realm of hypersonic weapon systems, or weapons that travel at speeds of Mach 5 or faster.
The Russian Ministry of Defense posted a video of the test to YouTube. In the video, Zircon is launched from one of Gorshkov’s vertical launch missile tubes. The missile briefly flies straight up until a series of divert motors pitch the missile into a roughly horizontal flight path. At Mach 8, it would take the Zircon 157 seconds to reach a target 267 miles away, although some consideration for acceleration must be taken into account.
Zircon is designed to use white-hot speed to hit targets before they can mount an effective defense. If a defending ship has its search radar mounted 100 feet off the ground and Zircon flies at an altitude of 1,000 feet (the real number might be much lower), the radar should detect the missile around 50 miles. At 1.7 miles per second, Zircon will close the gap in just 29 seconds, meaning the defending ship will need to detect, track, identify, launch defensive missiles, and achieve intercept in less than half a minute.
While Zircon has reportedly been under development for about three years now, the U.S. Navy hasn’t been sitting on its hands. The service is investigating using the SM-6 ship-based missile to intercept hypersonic weapons.
SM-6 has a range of 150 miles and a top speed of Mach 3.5, making it capable of engaging even hypersonic weapons relatively far from the ships it’s defending. Shorter-range intercepts would possibly be attempted with the faster, medium range Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) surface-to-air missile, though that also might require modification to tackle hypersonic weapons.
The Navy could even, under certain circumstances, detect Zircon at greater ranges with the new Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) system. NIFC-CA would allow an E-2D Hawkeye early warning radar aircraft, or even an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, to fly ahead of the fleet, detecting targets like Zircon at least 100 miles before a ship’s surface radar could detect them.
The airplanes could then use NIFC-CA to direct SM-6 missiles launched from guided missile destroyers and cruisers to destroy the inbound missiles. For now, however, this capability would require an accompanying aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship.
Zircon’s speed borders on terrifying, but the good news is the U.S. Navy is on the case.
Picture: Popular Mechanics