Russia's ‘Zircon’ hypersonic super weapon has failed in Ukraine. Putin is egg-faced again

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A Ukrainian forensic research bureau says that Russia used its “Zircon” hypersonic super-weapon to strike Kyiv last week. The facts of the incident are still being established but indications suggest a new humiliation for Vladimir Putin, as another of his supposedly invincible weapons seems to have been shot down by Ukrainian air defences.

What is known is that Russia mounted an attack on Kyiv last week, on February 7, using a mixture of weapons. In the judgement of the Ukrainian air force, in charge of the city’s air defences, these included basic propellor-driven Shahed drones from Iran, subsonic Kh-55 cruise missiles, and Kalibr cruise missiles. Kalibrs are mostly subsonic, but some versions go to supersonic speed – reportedly Mach 3 – during the final approach to the target, making them harder to shoot down.

The suggestion then is that the Ukrainian defenders didn’t detect any incoming missile travelling faster than say Mach 3. This would lead them to conclude that no hypersonic weapons were in play – “hypersonic” is generally taken to mean faster than Mach 5. The air defences did however warn of a “high velocity missile” approaching the city at 0746 local time on the 7th, suggesting a supersonic weapon.

As early as last week, photos were circulating online of Russian missile debris from one of the sites hit, marked “3M22” – the designation of the Zircon. Tellingly, the site of the missile impact was in a part of the city where no military targets existed. It would be unlikely for the Russians to deliberately aim a scarce, expensive super-weapon at such a location, which indicates that the missile was shot down: or perhaps that it malfunctioned on its own.

Now Oleksandr Ruvin, director of the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute for Forensic Examinations, has posted on Telegram that his team’s initial investigation suggests that the weapon was indeed a Zircon. Footage showing various missile parts has also been released (above).

The Zircon is initially launched by a rocket booster, and then transitions to ramjet propulsion. Normal ramjets top out between Mach 3 and Mach 4 due to their need to keep the air flow through the combustion chamber subsonic, which generates increasing drag at higher supersonic speeds. To go faster a supersonic combustion ramjet – a scramjet – is required.

In the West, scramjets powered by hydrogen have been tested to Mach 10 and beyond, but hydrogen fuel is extremely troublesome to use in military applications. Attempts to run scramjets on comparatively normal liquid fuel have been much more troublesome, but the American X-51 Waverider test scramjet, after some failures, did make a sustained liquid fuelled flight at better than Mach 5 in 2013.

Russia has made various statements about the Zircon. Most famously Vladimir Putin included it in his list of six Russian “super weapons” in 2018, ones which he stated were impossible for America to intercept or defeat. Official footage has supposedly showed various Zircon test firings: in at least some cases these later turned out to be other, older weapons, casting some doubt even on the existence of Zircon, or its existence as described.

Nonetheless the Russians claim to have cracked the problem of liquid-fuel scramjets in the Zircon. Various contradictory statements have been made about the missile’s performance, but it is said to be capable of Mach 8 or Mach 9 and ranges up to 1,000km. It was originally developed as an anti-ship weapon for use by Russian warships and submarines, but there have also been reports that a land-attack version was being developed.

If the missile actually approached its target at Mach 8 or 9, it would be difficult to defend against, especially if it were manoeuvring unpredictably. However most experts are sceptical regarding the ability of the Zircon to do this, as at such speeds it would be travelling inside a self-generated bubble of ionised plasma. This would mean that it couldn’t use radar, communications or satellite navigation. That would make it impossible to hit a moving target such as a ship, and even in land attack would limit the missile to comparatively inaccurate inertial guidance.

It’s also worth remembering that the Russians routinely exaggerate their military capabilities. Another of Putin’s six super-weapons, the “Kinzhal” air launched missile, is supposedly hypersonic and unstoppable: but it has turned out in the Ukraine war that American-made Patriot interceptors can knock it down with a high rate of success.

So it’s likely that the Zircon is not all that it’s cracked up to be, and it may well have been approaching Kyiv no faster than a supersonic Kalibr does, as various analysts have long expected would be the case. Ruvin provides support for this thesis, saying on Telegram:

“It is already evident that the weapon falls short of the tactical and technical characteristics declared by the enemy.”

It’s early days yet, but it seems likely that the Zircon, like the Kinzhal, is not the game-changing super weapon that Vladimir Putin says it is. The Russian dictator would seem to have egg on his face once again.

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