Zicron Mach 10 Hypersonic Cruise Missile Begins First Combat Duty on Russian Navy Warship: What is its Significance?

Three years after entering service with the Russian Navy in the final days of 2019, the first Zicron hypersonic cruise missiles have gone to sea with a warship on combat duty. An unknown number of the missiles are currently being carried by the frigate and lead ship of its class the Admiral Gorshkov – a 5,400 ton design of which 15 are planned to enter service. The ceremony marking the event on January 4 was overseen by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who claimed the new missile was a “unique weapon” and that “no other country has anything comparable.” “I am sure that such a powerful armament will allow us to steadfastly defend Russia from potential foreign threats. It will help to maintain the national interests of our country,” he added. Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu provided further details on the first mission carrying the new missile class, stating that the Gorshkov was sailing out onto a voyage in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea.” The minister notably cited a range of over 1000km for the missiles, which was slightly longer than previous estimates of 900-1000km. This provides a reach far surpassing other supersonic cruise missile classes such as the Chinese YJ-18 and Russian-Indian BrahMos which were considered the leaders in the field before the Zicron entered service. 

The Zicron program has been central to the modernisation of Russian anti shipping capabilities, and is expected to be relied on heavily to compensate for other shortcomings in the Russian Navy including its much diminished destroyer and cruiser fleets. The missile is expected to be deployed not only from surface ships and submarines, but also from ground based mobile launchers for coastal defence and from aircraft such as the MiG-31K designated strike and anti shipping roles. The missile was designed to be easily integrated into the vertical launch systems on current Russian Navy warships, which currently rely on the Kalibr and P-800 Oniks as their primary offensive weapons. Among the most highly prized features of the Zicron is its extreme speed of over Mach 9, which combined with high manoeuvrability and a low radar cross section makes it effectively impossible for existing air defence systems to reliably defend against. Defence Minister Shoigu thus stated regarding the significance of the first combat patrol with the missile: “A ship fitted with Zircons is capable of carrying out high-precision and powerful strikes on the enemy at sea and on land… The unique feature of Zircon hypersonic missiles is their guaranteed ability to bypass any existing or prospective air defence systems.” The Zicron is expected to help compensate for the Russian Navy’s lack of a large surface fleet, and to allow relatively small ships such as Gorshkov Class frigates and even corvette sized vessels to very seriously threaten fleets comprised of much larger destroyers, cruisers and carriers. Russian ships will be able to leverage the missile’s range advantage, its uniquely high survivability against air defences, and the tremendous damage that the sheer kinetic energy of its impacts can cause. How long these advantages will last remains to be seen, however, amid sustained Chinese and American investments in developing similarly capable missiles for their own fleets.