Related Video Above: Hypersonic Weapons
Russia plans to break new ground with the first-time submarine firing of a hypersonic weapon from beneath the surface of the ocean.
Russia plans to be the first country to fire a hypersonic missile from a submarine, a new attack prospect likely to introduce new tactical options for commanders looking to attack from the sea.
Russian Submarine Launched Hypersonic Weapon
Following an upcoming submarine surface launch, the Russians plan to fire hypersonic weapons from beneath the surface of the ocean. What would it mean to have a submarine-launched hypersonic weapon?
Certainly there are new strategic and tactical implications for joint warfare commanders, who would have a new sphere of attack angles and ranges.
Certainly submarines can fire high-speed cruise missiles such as U.S. Tomahawks or Russian Kalibr able to travel 500 or more miles per hour, yet an attack weapon capable of traveling at hypersonic speeds introduces an entirely new dimension of surprise attack.
Tsirkon Hypersonic Cruise Missile
Fast evolving plans for a submarine-launched variant comes after Russia completed flight tests of its advanced Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, with launches from a surface ship, namely the Admiral Gorshkov frigate, a source close to the Russian defense ministry has told TASS.
Russia has ship-fired its new Tsirkon hypersonic missile reported to travel at nine times the speed of sound against coastal, inland or maritime targets from great distances. Russia is well known to have been developing hypersonic weapons for quite some time, and they are weapons often hyped up by the Russian media.
"The flight tests of Tsirkon, with launches from a coastal mount and Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov frigate have been successfully completed. Over 10 launches were performed, the latest of them in July," a source reportedly told Russia’s TASS news agency.
Tsirkon Hypersonic Missile: Flying at Mach 9 for 1,000 km
New trials are set to begin in just a few months, a development to quickly be followed by actual delivery and deployment of the weapon. The Russian paper says Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the Tsirkon hypersonic missile is capable of flying nine times the speed of sound at Mach 9 and is able to reach targets as far away as 1,000 km.
How might a ship launched hypersonic missile, capable of those speeds at ranges up to 1,000 km, impact tactical circumstances on the high seas? One thing which quickly comes to mind is the coastal areas of NATO-allied along the Black Sea such as Romania and Bulgaria.
Certainly an attack weapon travel at those speeds might prove difficult to detect and defend against. Ukraine also borders the Black Sea, and hypersonic weapons mounted on warships place new areas at risk, particularly given that coastal sensors, command and control and interceptors would be quite challenged to respond in time to prevent a successful strike.
The U.S. Navy as well as NATO allies and even the U.S. Coast Guard are known to regularly conduct security and deterrence patrols in international waters in the Black Sea, yet engineering effective or consistent defenses against hypersonic weapons remains quite problematic. Perhaps arming warships with hypersonic weapons represents a deliberate and transparent Russian attempt to compensate for its smaller, less capable Naval force. The thinking may be that arming ships with hypersonics may help the Russian Navy massively improve lethality and close the gap with a much larger and technologically superior U.S. Navy.
Finally, given the pace of technological advancement and ongoing work in the area of ship-defenses, it might not be entirely accurate to say the coastal areas, inland fortifications and U.S. Navy ships are entirely defenseless against hypersonics.
If so, it will not be much longer as AI-enabled sensing, fire control and layered defenses, not to mention aerial sensor nodes surveilling beyond the horizon are all potential reasons why advanced Navy ships just might be able to see and take out an approaching hypersonic weapon. Many more weapons, particularly those which are for non-lethal defensive purposes such as interceptor missiles, are increasingly becoming more automated, networked and supported by unprecedented computer processing speeds.
Non-kinetic jamming and EW defenses are becoming increasingly advance as well, so while the Russian media may paint things in a certain self-serving respect, the actual parameters of the threat equation are likely to be more nuanced, complicated and subject to rapid change as new weapons emerge.
Meanwhile, the Russian press is also talking about hypersonics defense, saying that its country’s air defenses will easily provide an effective defense against the just tested U.S. hypersonic missile. This claim which is not only unverified but difficult to envision.
Stealth fighter jets for example, capable of exceeding the speed of sound, are already in a position to have some success eluding precise engagement or “targeting” from the best Russian S-400 and S-500 air defenses, so what might that mean for the possibility of defending a U.S. launched hypersonic weapon traveling at five times the speed of sound.
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Russia’s TASS news agency quotes the development director of the Foundation for the Promotion of Technologies of the 21st Century, Ivan Konovalov, discrediting and even degrading the successful U.S. test firing of its Hypersonic Air Breathing Weapons Concept.
“The parameters that the Americans have disclosed do not exceed those declared in Russia. Russia's newest air defense systems are an excellent counter-argument against this weapon," Konovalov said.
U.S Hypersonic Air Breathing Weapons Concept
The U.S. HAWC system, a DARPA-U.S. Air Force program supported by Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, is making fast progress toward operational status as part of a vigorous Pentagon push to match or exceed established Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons capability.
Defending hypersonic weapons, however, likely requires a level of speed, computer processing, fire control and weaponry not likely to exist in even the most modern Russian air defenses. The reason is simple, as it pertains to speed and maneuverability.
Even if an advanced Russian air defense radar system, such as those now networked together by digital processors and highly sensitive and precise long-range radar were able to detect or discern that a weapon such as a hypersonic missile were “on the way,” the challenge of actually establishing an “engagement” track is an altogether different prospect.
If establishing a targeting track on a 5th generation fighter is itself a challenge for Russian air defenses, what might that mean when it comes to defending against a maneuvering hypersonic missile traveling at five times the speed of sound?
Detecting that “something” is approaching, even if a high-fidelity rendering or radar return signal were possible, actually generating a targeting “track” that is fast, narrow and precise enough to succeed in “hitting” or “intercepting” a target is an altogether different matter. This phenomenon is one key reason why many air power advocates insist on the continuation of stealth technology. It is pretty clear that a hypersonic missile is likely to be just as if not more difficult to engage and hit than an F-22 or F-35.
The Russian report goes on to question the U.S. HAWC firing success and seeks to discredit the Pentagon’s efforts to fast-track hypersonic weapons.
"These tests are not trustworthy. First, the Americans said that they need far more time. Then there was a series of unsuccessful tests. Now they say that the research and development for this weapon has been completed and thorough flight tests carried out," Konovalov said.
Then, in what could be regarded as a surprising and far-fetched “degradation,” the Russian paper claims that the technology demonstrated by the HAWC represent a level of performance that Russia achieved during its days as The Soviet Union.
"Judging by what the Americans have disclosed, they have tested a hypersonic cruise missile demonstrator, capable of developing a speed of Mach 5. The Soviet Union reached this stage back when it was creating 'product 4202', a hypersonic warhead," the editor-in-chief of the Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) magazine, Viktor Murakhovsky, told TASS.
Submarine Launched Hypersonic Weapon
A submarine launched hypersonic weapon changes the equation in a number of significant ways.
Weapons such as the Tomahawk are often “first strike” possibilities in warfare engagements given their precision and range, as they can destroy fixed land targets such as command and control centers, bunkers and other kinds of fortified enemy targets.
Tomahawks were designed years ago to fly parallel to the ground for the specific purpose of evading Soviet air defenses during the Cold War, and since that time, the U.S. Navy has regularly upgraded the weapon to the system it is today. Today’s Tomahawk can change course in flight to hit moving targets, rely upon a wider range of guidance systems and datalinks and leverage new kinds of explosives.
A sea-launched weapon able to travel at five times the speed of sound would of course be much more likely to penetrate or evade enemy air defense systems. At the same time, some might be inclined to wonder how a scramjet-powered hypersonic missile, such as the Russian Tsirkon, could launch from beneath the surface. The weapon may need to be fired from a submarine which has surfaced given the level of heat and high-speed propulsion required to thrust a weapon forward at hypersonic speeds .. and sustain those speeds. This may be part of why the Russian TASS news agency is reporting that a second launch from “undersea” is planned to follow the first surface launch.
"The first launch of a Tsirkon from the Severodvinsk submarine within the framework of development flight tests will be carried out from the water surface position at the beginning of October. Depending on its results, the second launch from underwater at sea targets is scheduled in November," the TASS report explains.
It makes sense that the Tsirkon might fire from a submarine that has surfaced, given that it has already been test fired several times from a surface ship. Should Russia succeed in launching a scramjet-powered hypersonic missile from beneath the surface following this initial firing, that might indeed represent a substantial breakthrough sufficient to generate international attention.
Alongside stories reporting this announcement about the upcoming Tsirkon submarine launch, the TASS news agency is also citing Russian scientists suggesting that Russian submarine technologies are “superior” to the West.
TASS quotes the Chief Scientist of the Russian State Research Center claiming that periscope and fiber-optic networking technology built into Russian submarines are equivalent if not superior to U.S. Navy submarines. "Today, the periscope equipment installed on the newest US Navy submarines is no better than the same gear that Russian submarines are equipped with. In this respect, the situational awareness levels of the submarine crews of the US Navy and the Russian Navy are approximately the same, including technical features such as resolution and color contrasts," Russian scientist Vladimir Peshekhonov told TASS.
The reference to fiber-optics and periscope technology seems significant, as the U.S. Navy’s Block III Virginia-class attack submarines and the Navy’s nuclear-armed Columbia class are both now being engineered with fiber-optic connectivity. This is a networking breakthrough which enables periscope viewing from an entire range of locations throughout a submarine, without requiring viewing to take place just below the top of the submarine near the surface.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox.