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‘Substantial Threat’! Russia Moves Its Warship To Northern Base, Warning Issued – Is Moscow Planning Zircon Hypersonic Missile Test?

A Naval Warning (NAVWARN) released by Russian authorities for nine days on its northern seaboard has led to speculations of a 3M22 Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile being possibly test-fired from the Admiral Kasatonov frigate. 

The NAVWARN is between April 20 to 29, covering a distance of 3,500 kilometers from the Barents Sea to the East Siberian Sea. Observers point to how the test of any strategic missile system at this juncture in the war signals and deters the US from directly confronting Russia. 

The war has reached a crucial point at Bakhmut and is seeing a second round of low-level nuclear brinkmanship between Russia and the West. Having already gone past a year, Russia expects the US to continue arming Ukraine and wear it down. It hopes to seize the few remaining areas in separatist Donbas and Kherson. 

Russian Destroyer Moves Into Its Northern Base

A post on a pro-Kremlin Telegram group, referring to the NAVWARN, said, “The closure of the regions is most likely due to the upcoming tests of the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile from the Admiral Kasatonov frigate, which arrived in March this year to the Northern Fleet for sea trials.”

The Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate Kasatonov was reported by some Twitter handles tracking open source intelligence (OSINT) on March 21 this year as having returned to Severomorsk in Murmansk. It has been operating in the Mediterranean since early 2022 and was tracked and escorted by the Royal Navy warship HMS Portland as it headed towards the North Sea from the English Channel. 

OSINT and satellite imagery specialist Dr. Marco Longbroek, who posted a map of the NAVWARN, reasoned that the stipulated range of 3,500 kilometers was too short for a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM).

A logo on the map said it was a Russian SLBM test. Thus, based on the fact that the Kasatonov carries Zircon missiles, he concluded that it is the missile to be likely tested on the said dates. 

A map of the Naval Warning (NAVWARN) issued in the region of Russia’s northern territorial waters

Zircon was expected to be launched during the 10-day naval exercises between Russia, South Africa, and China in February this year. However, reports later said no such launch would take place.

Captain Oleg Gladkiy, who was heading the Russian contingent, was quoted by Reuters as having said so during a media interaction at Richards Bay. He denied that a test firing of the Zircon was a part of the planned artillery drills.

“The hypersonic weapon will not be used in the context of these exercises. There is no hidden meaning in the exercises that we are performing today,” Gladkiy had said. 

The last live firing occurred in May last year at the height of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) when it was released from the Barents Sea from the Admiral Gorshkov Frigate. It successfully hit a target 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) away in the Arctic’s White Sea. 

Not A Wonder Weapon, But Still A Challenge 

In a January 2023 article on the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Dr. Sidharth Kaushal noted the Zircon’s versatility of being fired from various ships and submarines, and its size and speed “in tactical terms, represent a challenge to high-value Western maritime assets.” 

Zircon missile

“A destroyer’s radar and electronic support measures (ESM) sensors would detect a missile flying on a low-altitude trajectory at distances of 12–14 nautical miles. From this point, assuming the missile is a Zircon flying at speeds of Mach 5–6, the vessel would have 15 seconds to react. Such compressed reaction times could significantly reduce the number of missiles needed to overwhelm the air defenses of a surface task group,” Kaushal wrote. 

The article doubted many of the missile’s claimed features and highlighted potential drawbacks. This includes its vulnerability to detection in its midcourse and terminal phases, the impact of the ionized plasma around the missile at hypersonic speeds on the onboard sensors, and the trade-off between hypersonic speed, low-observability, and speed and range.

However, Kaushal concluded that the missile would still “represent a substantial challenge to shipboard air defenses.”

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