Hypersonic revolution: the Zircon launches finally made the Russian fleet a world size?

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Hypersonic revolution: the Zircon launches finally made the Russian fleet a world size?
Hypersonic revolution: the Zircon launches finally made the Russian fleet a world size?

By the end of the year, Russia will conduct three more launches of a fundamentally new hypersonic missile, which has dramatically changed the balance of forces in the earth's seas. Today, there are no such means of destruction of ships anywhere outside our country. For the first time in many years, American aircraft carriers proved to be truly vulnerable to the Russian fleet. How did this happen and what does it mean for the future? Let's try to figure it out.

Hypersonic missile

Russia has traditionally had bad luck with the fleet since 1905. In World War I, we built several battleships, but their only noticeable influence on history was that they stood in ports, and then their sailors took an active part in the revolution - to avoid participation in the battles. It wasn't much better after that. In 1937, during an exercise in the Gulf of Finland, Soviet drone boats conditionally destroyed battleships, but the "battleship-thinking" admirals decided to pretend that this was not the case, and at the beginning of the war they converted the drones into ordinary boats.

The most important technical revolution in the war at sea - aviation - the Soviet admirals slept through. As a result, in World War II, we lost a thousand warships, including a battleship, and the enemy - fifty, and the largest of them was a cruiser of the third rank.

And even during the 2008 war, the Russian fleet managed to sink only a Georgian boat, incidentally dousing a peaceful ship with shrapnel. Yes, and this result had to be achieved not with a standard anti-ship missile - since it "could not" - but with a missile of the on-board air defense system. One can argue for a long time why our fleet manifests itself so moderately in real conflicts, but perhaps the situation is changing right before our eyes. Thanks to Zircon.

What missiles are called hypersonic

As is often the case, the title does not always get what it deserves. The first ever rocket with a hypersonic speed - above M = 5 - was the V-2, which took off in the summer of 1942. However, it and all other ballistic missiles are not called hypersonic, because they can pick up speed only once, and having done it once, they are not able to pick up such speed anymore.


It's all about the engine. A typical combat missile can often reach speeds above M = 5, that is, formally hypersonic. But it has solid fuel, which means that if its fuel was enough for the second launch, it would still be unrealistic to do it: solid-fuel missiles fly, in fact, on a large and complex powder checker. To “turn it off”, you need to drop the pressure in the combustion zone, for which, for example, a pyrotechnic charge can serve, knocking out a part of the rocket shell in this zone. The pressure has dropped - combustion is over. But it will not work back to start: there will be no pressure. You can try to change the start and start systems, but still it will not work out very well.

Air defense missiles do not always turn off the engines, but they are energetically limited in comparison with a hypersonic missile using liquid fuel and atmospheric oxygen. After all, military rockets on solid fuel carry both fuel and an oxidizer - that is, they do not have many opportunities for long-term operation.

Of course, there were also liquid propellant rockets. For example, the Germans in World War II managed to develop a rather exotic rocket fuel "Tonka-250", but due to the collapse of the Reich they did not manage to use it.The USSR, however, named it TG-02 and used it: the Tu-22 had an X-22 anti-ship missile on it and a nitric acid oxidizer. But here, too, you can't go around with fuel: after all, both the fuel and the oxidizer have to be carried in the rocket itself.


There is a natural desire to use a missile similar to a subsonic or supersonic cruise - only a hypersonic, faster one. Cruise missiles (except nuclear) carry fuel, and the oxidizer is taken from the air. This allows the engines to be kept running longer. But the problem is that at hypersonic speeds, a conventional jet engine doesn't work.

There was a need to create a hypersonic ramjet engine - and this is already a non-trivial task, because such shock waves appear in the air, which seriously complicate both the controlled flight of the apparatus and even the combustion of fuel in its engine. That is why the United States has been experimenting with its X-51 missiles for many years, but has not yet succeeded in adopting them.


Why is it so important? Because although the V-2 achieves hypersound, it is relatively easy to shoot down without the ability to maneuver on the subsequent trajectory. The radar allows you to calculate the ballistic trajectory, and then send an anti-missile there in advance, which will explode next to the target missile.

But from a hypersonic missile or warhead, such an anti-missile defense will not work. A hypersonic missile is constantly maneuvering, and the use of anti-missiles against it will be extremely difficult. In fact, the anti-missile is unlikely to shoot down the target, even if it maneuvers itself in hypersound. Considering that now there are no hypersonic interceptors, any target that is attacked by maneuvering hypersonic means in general becomes defenseless: it simply cannot intercept the missile attacking it.

What do we know about "Zircon"

Against this background, the appearance in 2016 of references to the Russian Zircon missile and the subsequent information that it was hypersonic caused serious public distrust, both Russian and world. Alexei Navalny personally stated that the Zircon missile did not exist last year. In the United States, its development is commented on in the traditional style of "unity and struggle of contradictions," so typical of the analysis of the situation in Russia in the West.

On the one hand, many said that these were just threats and that it was impossible to trust the Russian leadership, and technologically hypersound was complicated, so the Zircon was not able to actively fly on hypersound. On the other hand, representatives of the Pentagon, as usual talking about external threats, also list Russian hypersonic weapons, subtly hinting that it would be necessary to again increase appropriations for defense.

All of these meaningful discussions lost some of their relevance at the beginning of 2020. Then from the Russian frigate "Admiral Gorshkov" - by the way, not such a big ship, only 5400 tons of displacement, less than "Aurora" - the Zircon rocket was launched. And she hit a ground target. In October 2020, the missile launch was first shown on video - and it hit a naval target.

An important detail is easily noticeable in the video: the launch was carried out from a standard vertical shaft installation, the same dimensions as those of the Caliber. However, "Caliber" is a subsonic missile (when attacking ground targets and "on the march" to a sea target) or supersonic (when approaching a sea target). Consequently, it is radically less dangerous than Zircon. After all, the air defense of many fleets is able to shoot down cruise missiles on the march. The air at the surface of the earth is dense - faster than M = 2-2, 5 a cruise missile will not fly here. And at this speed, it is quite possible to shoot it down even with a rapid-fire cannon. To break through the defenses, you need to launch dozens of cruise missiles at once.


But even if the launch is just that, it is very difficult for them to hit the aircraft carriers. Each of them is covered by dozens of escort ships at once. A cruise missile will inevitably bump into one of them - and although they drown, the aircraft carrier itself will not go to the bottom.Namely, he is the main goal of today's war at sea: aviation is very dangerous, and by depriving the enemy of carrier-based aircraft, it is possible to turn the tide and outcome of the "naval" war.

However, Zircon is not Caliber. He attacks not horizontally, flying low over the water, like a cruise missile, but vertically: diving at the target from above, at a large angle, at speeds up to M = 9. It has a seeker that looks for a radio-contrast target of the largest size (aircraft carrier) in the attacked area. Such a head ignores smaller ships: now the aircraft carrier cannot hide behind them. To shoot down something maneuvering with a speed of M = 9 is also unrealistic today.

In other words, it follows from the video of the Zircon launch: all Russian ships equipped with Caliber can, in theory, be placed in the same Zircon launch cells. The smallest of these ships, the Buyan-class corvettes, with a displacement of less than a thousand tons, have at least four such cells. New missiles are also promised to be placed on board submarines.


This means that the new hypersonic missile completely turns the whole war at sea. Let us remind you that Russia has a satellite constellation that makes it possible to find any enemy aircraft carrier constellation at sea. Having received data on its location, any corvette (or a number of types of submarines, if we are talking about distant seas) can launch Zircons. Their range, according to official data, is "over a thousand kilometers", that is, the launch can be carried out within a radius of one thousand kilometers from the NATO aircraft carrier. At this distance from the aircraft carrier there are no constant air patrols, and the strike has a noticeable chance of going unpunished (especially for submarines).

The weight of the warhead of the new missiles is 300-400 kilograms. Even four hits of such missiles on an aircraft carrier mean its failure and - with a high degree of probability - a major fire. Accordingly, even a single small ship of the Russian fleet now from a distance of a thousand kilometers can render a large nuclear aircraft carrier with a displacement of under 100 thousand tons incapacitated.

Halfway to Rocket Taranto

In fact, this is a revolution in war at sea, comparable to the one that happened in the 1940s when aircraft became able to sink battleships, which was demonstrated in 1940 by British biplanes in the Italian port of Taranto. Now, after the first launches of "Zircon" at sea targets, already large aircraft carrier ships find themselves in a situation where they are a target. And where they should conduct a retaliatory attack, and whether they will be able to threaten a ship launching such missiles at all is not very clear.


The fact is that the area of ​​a circle with a radius of a thousand kilometers is 3.14 million square kilometers. An aircraft carrier, with all its will, will not be able to conduct aerial reconnaissance over such an area with any efficiency. A Russian submarine surfaced 998 kilometers away, fired a salvo of several missiles - the US satellite reconnaissance system would see this and even transmit data about this to the aircraft carrier group. But what's next? Send an airplane with anti-submarine weapons to the launch site? The boat has long since sunk - there is no one to drown there. To alert the air defense / missile defense of the aircraft carrier group? It is useless: it will not shoot down a missile that hits a target at a speed of up to three kilometers per second. And what will happen if several such boats surface and dozens of such missiles are launched?

In fact, we are facing a turning point in the maritime history of wars: missile-carrying ships temporarily received noticeable advantages over aircraft carriers. Of course, this does not mean that aviation has ceased to play a leading role in the war at sea. The same MiG-31 and Tu-22 with another hypersonic missile, the Dagger, with a range of 2,000 kilometers, can reliably hit any surface carrier of the Zircon - or an American aircraft carrier - without entering their air defense zone.

However, now the dominance of the sea from carrier-based aircraft will gradually move to land-based aviation. After all, the aircraft carrier cannot continue to work after three or four hits by the Zircons.The land airfield can withstand the strikes of fifty cruise missiles without losing flight fitness, as the events in Syria have shown. And there are orders of magnitude more sites on the planet suitable for military airfields than aircraft carriers: it will be difficult to fire at everything.

As carriers of hypersonic missiles, aircraft are better than surface ships: the speed is many times higher, so it is quite possible to strike before the enemy sees you, and return to your airfield before he has time to send a fighter in your direction. That is, airplanes, and in the future also drones, will definitely retain their dominant position at sea for the next decades.

Those who are unlikely to keep it are large surface ships of all types.

The negative consequences of the triumph of "Zircons" for Russia

The good news mostly ends there. There are no free achievements: by starting to put revolutionary hypersonic weapons on ships, Russia made it inevitable that the same weapons would be adopted in the United States. Yes, the launches of the X-51 were not always successful there, there were problems, the tests were suspended for a considerable period, yes, the States do not have such a missile now.


But this has already happened in history. In the 1950s, the Americans really did not want their first satellites and people to go into space aboard a rocket created by Wernher von Braun - since he, like 120 of his colleagues, were taken to the United States from Germany. And they half-jokingly called themselves "peace-of-war" (by analogy with prisoners of war, with the difference that von Braun and his people did not fight, but were captured). The Americans, in principle, did not think that they needed the help of a German engineer: they saw in him "one of", not realizing that von Braun in his abilities stood much higher than any American contemporary.

Therefore, when in 1954 he proposed a rocket project that could put a satellite into orbit, everyone preferred not to notice his proposal. On September 20, 1956, the Jupiter-C rocket he created for the military made a flight, reaching a highest point of 1100 kilometers (above the orbit of the launch of the first Soviet satellite). And on board was a mock satellite weighing 14 kilograms.

To make sure that von Braun is firmly "on the chain", General Andrew O'Meara came to the developers just before the launch - specifically to explain: Jupiter-C should not "accidentally" launch anything into low-Earth orbit. As American historian Walter McDougall correctly notes, all this disgrace was only due to the nationality of von Braun: "The government wanted to avoid any connection [of American space projects] with the Third Reich."


But in October 1957, Korolev pushed von Braun straight into the kings. Having outstripped the politically correct American developers of rockets for space, the USSR brought the first satellite there. That same night, without waiting for dawn, the American Secretary of Defense came to von Braun and urgently set him the task of catching up. As a result, the States quickly got into space, and a dozen years later - to the moon.

Why this historical excursion? To the fact that now the US military-industrial complex has finally realized it and is going to catch up at an accelerated pace. Yes, with the von Brauns in the American military-industrial complex today, it is not very good, but it is difficult to doubt that this country will still be able to put into service hypersonic missiles in the 2020s. Boeing may not do it with X = 51, but Lockheed Martin can do it with its hypersonic design.


And then Russia will find itself in a very difficult position in terms of the balance of forces at sea. The United States also has reconnaissance satellites and many more aircraft. Lockheed Martin is also working on an air-launched missile, and nothing will stop the United States from launching dozens or even hundreds of them at once, if necessary.

Meanwhile, Moscow cannot hope to match Washington's number of air carriers even in the long run. The Russian economy is not only several times smaller than the American one, but in the last decade it has also grown more slowly.That is, the gap between the ability to pay for armada of combat aircraft is growing rather than narrowing. The story with "Zircon" showed that Russia can definitely create and put into service new military technology faster than a potential adversary. But for the long-term maintenance of military parity, this alone is clearly not enough.

How the Russian side will get out of this situation remains completely unknown.

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