Russia's Much Vaunted Zircon Hypersonic Missile Launch: Not All It Seems?
In the race to field hypersonics, Russia is forging ahead by rolling out the 3M22 Zircon missile to its Navy. A wide range of submarines and surface combatants are slated to get the new anti-ship missile. Zirconization fever is in many ways similar to the 'Kalibrization', which has occurred over the past 10 years. President Putin himself has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the missile.
In this vein the Russian Minstry of Defense recently proclaimed the successful launch of a Zircon missile from an Admiral Gorshkov frigate. It occured in the White Sea on October 7. Media outlets, both credible and less credible, amplified the claims. Some noted that this was the first glimpse of the new super-weapon.
But there is a catch. The test launch shown wasn't of Zircon.
The Test Launch Footage Wasn't Zircon
In what might have simply been a press officer blunder, or maybe deliberately, the footage released appears to be of another missile type. It seems to show a P-800 Oniks (SS-N-26 STROBILE) anti-ship missile. The Oniks family of missiles (including Yakhont and Brahmos) have a distinctive configuration.
There are two strong clues. A) the missile shown emerging from the vertical launch system (VLS) is characteristic of Oniks. It has a nose cap which sits on top of a missile which barely tapers at all. B) The launch sequence, with the unusual nose-cap thrust vectoring, is the same as Oniks.
Oniks is unusual among missiles by having an annual air intake right at its nose. This gives it a relatively stubby configuration. A cap is placed over the air inlet during the initial phases of launch. This contains angled thrust-vectoring nozzles. After the missile is launched vertically, these thrusters flip the missile over before the main thruster kicks in. The cap is discarded as the missile powers away. It is quite different from many other missiles such as Kalibr.
The alleged Zircon launch (left) and a verified Oniks launch (right).
Zircon is expected to have a much more tapered nose, and likely not symmetrical in profile. The missile being launched doesn't look like that at all. So either our expectations for what Zircon looks like are completely wrong, or more likely, the footage wasn't of Zircon.
All this doesn't mean that Russia isn't developing and fielding Zircon. It just means that we have to be vigilant when presented with evidence, even from official channels.
The Oniks family's distinctive nose cap with thrusters
Zircon (and the likely related 'Brahmos-II') is expected to have the typical hypersonic vehicle layout with an asymetreical side profile and square-cut intake.
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