How Russia's Zircon Hypersonic Missiles Could Turn the Tide of Ukraine War

The Russian Defense Ministry said over the weekend its navy test-fired its long-range Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, a lethal weapon that is still in development but that could change the course of the war in Ukraine when introduced later this year.

The ministry said on Saturday that the Admiral Gorshkov frigate of the Northern Fleet launched the Zircon cruise missile in the Barents Sea in the Arctic, hitting a practice target in the White Sea, off Russia's northwest coast, some 540 nautical miles away.

"Rocket firing was carried out as part of testing new types of weapons," a statement said. "According to objective control data, the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile successfully hit a sea target located at a distance of about 1,000 km (620 miles). The flight of a hypersonic missile corresponded to the specified parameters."

A 30-second video was released with the statement, showing the missile launching from one of Russia's newest frigates and shooting into the sky, leaving a smoke trail in its wake.

China, the United States and Russia are all racing to develop hypersonic missiles. A hypersonic missile can travel at speeds of Mach 5 or higher—five times faster than the speed of sound. Mach One, the speed of sound, varies depending on what conditions the sound is traveling through—but scientists tend to measure it through dry air at 68F, which is about 767 miles per hour.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Zircon can fly at Mach 9—nine times the speed of sound—and has a range of 620 miles.

Although the weapons are still in development and are not believed to be ready for use until later this year, they will likely significantly change the course of the Ukraine war as they will be able to be deployed on Russian cruisers, frigates and submarines, and can be used against both marine and ground targets.

The missiles can be directed at targets from long distances and can't be intercepted by any current missile defense system, Russian officials say.

Defense expert Nicholas Drummond told Newsweek that Russia "will certainly" try to use Zircon missiles when they are ready for deployment.

Drummond said: "Zircon is an extremely expensive missile—estimated cost between $5 and $210 million per missile versus less than $5 million per Tomahawk cruise missile— and is designed for attacking ships, particularly aircraft carriers.

"It can also be used as a battlefield weapon to destroy airfields and strategic ground targets, like ammunition and fuel storage facilities, logistic supply dumps, and so on. Although it would have huge impact as a tactical land attack weapon, it would be uneconomical to use Zircon like ordinary rocket artillery, especially with Ukrainian units operating well dispersed to avoid casualties."

He added that he saw non-nuclear Zircons being deployed to level Ukrainian cities using conventional warheads.

"Hypersonic missiles can also carry nuclear warheads. But the cost of making Zircon nuclear-capable may be beyond Russia's means at this time. Moreover, if Russia started using nuclear-tipped Zircons to bomb Ukrainian cities into submission, it would trigger significant escalation."

Drummond said that Russia was using the Zircon to demonstrate the gradual ramping up of its commitment to subsume Ukraine.

"For the moment, the U.S. is content for the conflict to continue to be a war of attrition or a stalemate. If Russia starts using Zircon and it delivers a decisive effect, then America would almost certainly start to ramp up supplies of other weapons and may also provide Tomahawk and other types of long-range missiles," he added.

Drummond believes that Zircon is being used by Russia to step up its war effort without significant escalation that might bring NATO into the conflict.

Russia has conducted other test launches of the Zircon over the past year. Since the war began on February 24, Russia has tested several new weapons, including the RS-28 Sarmat or "Satan II", an intercontinental nuclear-capable missile that officials say can carry 10 or more warheads and has the range to strike the United States.

Putin has said the Sarmat would make Moscow's foreign adversaries "think twice", while Aleksey Zhuravlyov, chairman of the nationalist Rodina political party, said on Russian TV in April that "one Sarmat missile and the British Isles will be no more."

Some defense experts believe that Putin could resort to using nuclear weapons if he felt that the war was being lost.

With the Russian military suffering heavy losses in a grinding war in Ukraine, Russian politicians have warned of the threat of nuclear escalation. The Russian army tried to seize control of the capital Kyiv at the start of the conflict, but was met by fierce opposition by the Ukrainian military. Fighting is now concentrated in the eastern region of Donbas.

Russian Victory Day missile
A Russian Yars intercontinental ballistic missile launcher parades through Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in central Moscow on May 9, 2022. The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday its navy test-fired its long-range Zircon hypersonic cruise missile. Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty

05/30/22 10:00 a.m. ET - This article was updated with comments from Nicholas Drummond.