Latest Hypersonic Weapons on a 1980s Ship: Why This Old Destroyer May Be Russia’s Most Dangerous Surface Combatant

The Russian Navy has seen its fleet of large surface combatants contract rapidly since the end of the Cold War, with just 3 cruisers and 11 destroyers currently in service down from 37 cruisers and 52 destroyers in 1989 when the conflict concluded – or just 16 percent of previous numbers. While this has been primarily a result of sharp contractions in both GDP and defence spending relative to the Soviet era, the Russian Navy’s greater focus on submarines, coastal defence systems, and new classes of corvette and frigate sized ships capable of carrying very large missile classes for their size, has also been a major cause of neglect for the fleet of larger ocean going vessels. The contraction in fleet size has been all the more significant when considering that all cruisers and destroyers in Russian service today were built in the Soviet Union, with none having been laid down for domestic use since the state’s disintegration other than two Sovrenemmy Class destroyers built for export to China in the 1990s. To compensate for this lack of modern ocean going surface combatants the Russian Navy has invested in extensive modernisation of several of its older ships to allow them to remain relevant, and in some cases give them key performance advantages, in 21st century combat. While some ships have been heavily neglected for even basic modernisation, most famously the cruiser Moskva which as a result was left highly vulnerable to simple cruise missile strikes in the Black Sea in April 2022, one of the most ambitious modernisation program has been implemented for the Udaloy Class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov.

Udaloy Class destroyers were commissioned into service from 1980 to 1995, with 13 completed of which 8 are currently active meaning they represent the large majority of the Russian destroyer fleet today. The Udaloy and Sovremenny classes were developed and built in parallel, the former focused on anti submarine warfare and the latter carrying oversized very long ranged P-270 anti ship cruise missiles for anti surface strikes. Russia has since moved away from a reliance on oversized missiles as newer generations of regular sized missiles have gained many of the same capabilities in terms of range, flight performance and speed, and as a result the Udaloy has been seen as more viable to receive upgrades including a much improved anti shipping capability to make it a more valuable ship class overall. This has mirrored developments in China, where its four purchased Sovremenny Class ships have been refitted with regular sized indigenous YJ-12 cruise missiles allowing them to carry significantly greater firepower. 

The Udaloy Class destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov, commissioned in 1985, received major enhancements to its sensors, electronics and armaments from 2017 including replacement of its eight P-270 anti ship cruise missiles with 16 launchers from the new 3S14 vertical launch system, which provide compatibility with Russia’s latest cruise missile classes. It also integrated two 3S24 quad launchers for the Uran subsonic anti ship cruise missiles – a class not frequently deployed from Russian surface vessels closely derived from the air launched Kh-35. The ship retained its primary air defence capability with an arsenal of 64 short ranged surface to air missiles derived from those of the ground based Tor system, which although optimised to cruise missile interception are also capable of engaging all kinds of aircraft. The ship was recommissioned into service in 2020, and subsequently also integrated the new Otvet anti submarine missile which it tested conspicuously in 2021 before the missile class was accepted into service the following year. Although much remains uncertain regarding the capabilities of the Otvet, it is considered one of Russia’s most potent anti submarine weapons and complements the deep modernisation of the Marshal Shaposhnikov’s cruise missile arsenal. 

The most conscious improvement to the Marshal Shaposhnikov has been its integration of the Zicron hypersonic cruise missile, which was confirmed in late 2019 and facilitated by its integration of the 3S14 vertical launch system. The Zicron is very widely considered the most dangerous class of ship launched anti ship cruise missile in the world, with a totally unrivalled Mach 9 speed, very high manoeuvrability and a 1000km range allowing ships deploying it to exercise control over extremely wide areas of sea and potentially neutralise fleets several times their size while remaining out of harm’s way. Its advantages in range complement its very high penetrative capabilities, with the missile’s speed, manoeuvrability, and possibly plasma stealth capabilities, making it near impossible for existing defence systems to intercept. This and the sheer kinetic energy of its impacts allows it to effectively achieve one hit kills against even larger enemy surface combatants. With the Marshal Shaposhnikov able to deploy up to 16 of these missiles each alongside eight Urans and its anti submarine and air defence arsenals, the Zircons alone have the potential to neutralise an entire surface strike group without the need to bring the warship’s other weaponry into play, despite the Udaloy not having initially been designed primarily for anti shipping roles. 

The Zicron is well suited to the Marshal Shaposhnikov’s position in the Pacific fleet, where the Russian Navy is very heavily outnumbered by Western and allied fleets and fights over significantly wider areas than the enclosed Black Sea or Baltic Fleets. It is expected that ships in the Pacific will continue to be prioritised to integrate the costly new missiles, which even in small numbers are major game changers for the balance of power in the region. The Zicron is also expected to be deployed from bombers and strike fighters in future as an air launched variant, while a ground based coastal defence system integrating the missile is currently under development. Deploying the Zicron, alongside its other enhancements, makes the Marshal Shaposhnikov a close contender for the title of the Russian Navy’s most powerful surface combatant, with the missiles in particular providing a major edge in surface to surface engagements over any non Russian ships in the world. The American Harpoon and SM-6 and even the Chinese YJ-18 and YJ-100 do not come anywhere close in terms of performance despite being the two countries’ leading ship based weapons for tackling enemy surface combatants. Perhaps the Marshal Shaposhnikov’s primary drawback its its lack of a wide area defence capability due to the limited range of its surface to air missiles, meaning it will need cover from ships with longer ranged anti air capabilities which are relatively few and far between in the Russian fleet. While a future Russian destroyer class designed as an enlarged variant of the Admiral Gorshkov frigate will reportedly deploy very long ranged surface to air missiles based on those from the S-400 system, none of these has as of yet been laid down.