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.