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Russia Is Making Strides In Testing Its Tsirkon Hypersonic Cruise Missile (Should NATO Worry?)

Mark Episkopos

Key point: Russia is making progress on an array of new, innovative nuclear weapons.

In a development reported by CNBC news and corroborated by Russian media, the Russian military test-launched its Tsirkon hypersonic missile several weeks ago: "over ten test launches have been performed against sea-based targets at a distance of several hundred kilometers,” a military insider told the TASS Russian News Agency. They added that Tsirkon “destroyed the designated naval targets at hypersonic speed,”

Development of the 3M22 Tsirkon was revealed in 2011, with a period of active testing beginning from 2015. It has an effective range of around 500 km, and is compatible with submarines, certain bomber aircraft, and a wide range of surface vessels.

Operational versatility is a core component of Tsirkon’s design. As one of CNBC’s sources put it: “What we are seeing with this particular weapon is that the Russians designed it to have a dual-purpose capability, meaning, it can be used against a target on land as well as a vessel at sea.” Early Tsirkon tests were conducted with the Tu-22M3 bomber, but its subsequent development pattern suggests that the Russian military’s first priority is to test and deploy Tsirkon as a seaborne weapon.

Tsirkon is being manufactured in compliance with Russia’s Universal Vertical Launching System (UKSK), a seaborne missile launcher platform that notably includes the Russian “Caliber” and Russian-Indian “BrahMos” missiles. In fact, Tsirkon shares so much design and performance DNA with the latter that it could be considered as a fully Russian-made modernization of BrahMos.

Tsirkon’s top speed was previously reported to be around Mach 6 or 7,400 km per hour, but CNBC’s sources state that the recently tested Tsirkon missiles reached a top speed of Mach 8 or 9,800 kilometers per hour. It is unclear whether this discrepancy comes from technical improvements, different Tsirkon models being simultaneously developed and tested, or misstatements about Tsirkon’s performance.

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