Hypersonic missiles hit the headlines again in a manner reinforcing the impression that NATO remains behind Russia in this emerging category of potentially very-hard-to-counter weaponry – at sea this time. Russia plans to carry out the second shipboard launch of the 3M22 TSIRKON (NATO SS-N-33) in the spring from the frigate ADMIRAL GORSHKOV, Sputnik News reported on 20 March. Referring to the weapon as ‘an anti-ship cruise missile,’ Sputnik reported this follows the first such test from the same vessel in January in the Barents Sea against a land target, suggesting either a different version of the weapon or a second operating mode for the same weapon, believed to be a development of the HELA vehicle developed by NPO Mashinostroyeniya, shown publicly as long ago as 1995 at Moscow’s MAKS air show.
Sputnik also reported TSIRKON is capable of up to 11,100 kph. In standard atmosphere conditions at sea level and a temperature of 15°C, that works out at Mach 9.061. Speeds beyond Mach 5 are considered hypersonic.
There have been a number of different speed estimates for TSIRKON and there is no indication of an altitude vs speed profile that would show how fast it might be at sea-skimming height, for example. It is clear, however, it is far faster than any manoeuvrable low-flying threat that shipborne defensive systems have been designed to counter.
While ballistic missile terminal velocities can be much higher than Mach 9, perhaps as fast as Mach 22-28 approximately (27-34,200 kph), re-entry vehicles’ trajectories are both high and predictable and few have any significant manoeuvring capabilities, so even defensive systems with anti-ballistic missile (ABM) capabilities are not considered adequate to take on manoeuvrable hypersonic threats at very low altitudes.
While ship-launched TSIRKON reportedly uses a vertical launch system, such as the UKSK or later UKSK-M and therefore presumably uses a rocket as its first stage propulsion system, it is the air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) main engine that is the more interesting. A scramjet is a type of ramjet in which the flow through the combustion chamber is supersonic to limit temperature and pressure rises and enable speeds beyond Mach 5.
There is a view that such weapons cannot be stopped defensively: therefore, countering them requires either attacks on the entire targeting and launch chain or deployment of an equivalent capability as a deterrent. However, a consensus seems to be forming that an end-to-end approach from ISR and C2 to new hard-kill effectors, including missiles, lasers and even electromagnetic rail guns, along with EW techniques and cyber attacks is the more promising approach.
For example, with very fast weapons, decoys and jammers have a very short time to capture the seeker’s attention and divert it from its intended target. By the same token, the countermeasure only needs to do so for a very short time to engineer a miss.
While the Russian Navy admits that technical hurdles remain, it seems likely that it is likely to be able to field these weapons in a number of surface ship and submarine classes before the west comes up with reliable counters.
Peter Donaldson in London for MON