Are Russians Scramjet-Powered Missiles A Serious Threat?

Western navies have a curious weakness that goes back decades – a lack of a really effective anti-ship missile. The standard US weapon is the AGM-84 Harpoon and its variants, but the basic design is now 40 years old and has some serious weaknesses. The biggest one is its subsonic speed; despite its ECM and maneuvering capabilities, the time it takes to cross a ship’s defense zone means there’s a high chance of it being intercepted. With the average US Navy ship carrying eight missiles in a pair of four-round launchers, that doesn’t give many capabilities to hit multiple defended targets. Even if it does hit, the warhead is small enough that a destroyer or cruiser has a good chance of surviving with a lot of its combat power intact.

Russia has always taken a different approach to anti-ship missiles. Since the 1970s they’ve pushed for bigger, faster missiles that aim to race through the defenses and hit hard enough to guarantee an instant kill. The Kirov-class nuclear-powered battlecruisers are armed with a battery of 20 SS-N-19 Shipwreck heavy cruise missiles. These supersonic missiles have a 400-mile range, fly at up to Mach 2.5 and deliver a half-ton warhead that’s capable of wrecking anything short of an Iowa-class battleship with a single hit. They can also fly in a cooperative swarm, where one missile flies high enough to scan for targets with its radar and datalink the information to its low-flying friends as they run in below the target’s radar horizon. If the high-flyer is shot down another missile automatically pops up to take its place.

The Shipwreck is big and scary – enough that the US Navy’s AEGIS system was designed to defend against mass attacks by it and similar heavy Russian SSMs. The Russian response was the SS-N-27 Sizzler, a subsonic cruise missile that looks like a Tomahawk. It makes most of its flight as a sea-skimmer, making it hard to detect until it comes over the radar horizon – then it ejects a rocket-powered final stage that comes in at Mach 2.9, fifteen feet above the waves. A ship’s close-in defenses only have seconds to stop it.

Now it’s about to get even worse. Russia is currently testing the 3M22 Zircon, a scramjet-powered weapon with a 370-mile range and a top speed of close to Mach 7. This can cross the entire engagement range of the AEGIS system in less than a minute and has so much kinetic energy that it can destroy most ships without even needing a warhead – but, Russians being Russians, it’s tipped with 440 pounds of HE or a nuclear warhead anyway.

Weapons like this are a serious threat to any NATO warship – even a US carrier group. Russia says their battlecruisers will be armed with the Zircon as they’re refitted, which would let them fire a devastating salvo that could blast through most defenses. US doctrine is to use carrier air power to destroy missile launch platforms before they come within range, but as a Kirov carries around 500 anti-air missiles of its own – including the Patriot-class S-300 – that’s starting to look like a bit of a gamble. Western navies need to develop their own long-range missiles so they can hit enemy ships even when air power isn’t available.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Fergus Mason

Fergus Mason grew up in the west of Scotland. After attending university he spent 14 years in the British Army and served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Iraq. Afterwards, he went to Afghanistan as a contractor, where he worked in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Camp Leatherneck. He now writes on a variety of topics including current affairs and military matters.
Fergus Mason

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