"Zircon" Missile: The Nature of Russia's Warhead Used in the Recent Attack on Kyiv
This weapon, like many other Russian "analogues", fails to meet its claimed specifications. Yesterday, February 7, a hypersonic "Zircon" missile was shot down over Kyiv. Military analysts from the publication Defense Express reported this after studying the fragments of the missile.
In turn, Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat stated that accurate conclusions could only be made after the completion of the forthcoming examinations.
The "Zircon" missile is supposedly a hypersonic missile, which, according to Putin, has a flight speed of over 1000 km and reaches speeds of up to 9 Mach (3 km/s). It is designed to strike both ground and naval targets. It is claimed to have a cruise phase at an altitude of 30-40 km.
The Russian Ministry of Defense had previously regularly demonstrated "Zircon" launches during tests. Most of these videos were absolutely uninformative, made at night, making it extremely difficult to discern any detail. It was only in 2022 that Russia began publishing more detailed videos of the launches. An important nuance is that due to the use of a universal launch shaft for this missile, the developers were limited in the dimensions of the missile. Moreover, its launch uses a universal container, similar to that used for launching the anti-ship missiles "Onyx", which are used both from ships and coastal complexes "Bastion".
However, "Onyx" has a flight range of up to 300 km (in the modernized version "Onyx-M" a range of 800 km is claimed, testing began in 2019, status unknown) and a speed at an altitude of up to 2.6 Mach (0.88 km/s). Thus, in the same dimensions, the supposedly new missile already has three times the range and speed.
But increasing the speed and range by three times is not just three times more complex development, but the need to master entirely new technologies associated with hypersonics. The main problem is the creation of a hypersonic air-breathing jet engine, as well as special alloys capable of withstanding enormous temperatures associated with friction against the air, which becomes extremely dense at hypersonic speeds.
The main point here is the guidance system. Flying at hypersonic speed means flying in a cloud of heated gas, plasma, through which radio waves cannot penetrate. Thus, any self-guidance system of the missile is helpless during such a flight.
Therefore, there are two versions of how "Zircon" is guided to the target. The first - not at all: the missile is programmed with coordinates and then only an inertial system operates. It guides the missile to the target area with significant error, but the inaccuracy is compensated by the power of the nuclear charge. The second version is related to the fact that "Zircon" is not a full-fledged hypersonic missile. And it is in this version that everything is most explained. In particular, there is no hypersonic engine in "Zircon".
Instead, there is a well-tested solid-fuel engine that only accelerates the missile to the declared speed of 3 km/s, not constantly maintaining it. After this, "Zircon" flies by inertia, which already significantly reduces the requirements for the temperature strength of the materials. Already in the target area, the missile's speed is less than hypersonic, allowing the radar guidance head to work.
Proof of this is the video of a missile hitting a target, published in March 2023 by the propaganda channel "Zvezda", which is part of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Its peculiarity is that standard corner reflectors are installed on the target ship to simplify the guidance of the radar guidance head. Thus, "Zircon", like "Kinzhal", is unlikely to be a real example of hypersonic weaponry. It is more likely to be called another "information operation" carried out by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Of course, more precise information will be known after the examination by the Ukrainian Defense Forces, but it can already be stated that the actual product does not live up to the high claimed characteristics.