Russia’s Zircon hypersonic missile can do two things

Saturday, March 25th, 2023

Russia’s Zircon hypersonic missile can do two things, Michael Peck notes, fly at almost 7,000 mph, or hit a moving ship:

The problem is that objects traveling at hypersonic speeds — Mach 5 and beyond — ionize the air around them, creating a sheath of plasma around the object that blocks radar signals.

Yet radar is precisely how many guided missiles home in on their targets.


Against targets that are fixed, like buildings on land, it’s not necessary to slow down. But when hunting ships, the Zircon would probably have to slow down to supersonic speed to use its radar. If that’s the case, then as it nears the target, the Zircon would not be moving any faster than earlier Russian anti-ship missiles such as the P-800 Oniks, which has a speed of about Mach 2.5, or 1,900 mph.

Supersonic missiles can be intercepted by shipboard defenses such as the US Navy’s SeaRAM gun/missile system.

In addition, when the Zircon is launched, a rocket boosts it to high altitude and supersonic speed, which is necessary for the Zircon’s scramjet engine to kick in and reach hypersonic velocity. The disadvantage is that unlike supersonic anti-ship missiles that can skim just above the water to avoid radar detection, the Zircon will have to stay at an altitude of about 12 miles until it gets relatively close to the target. Flying higher for longer makes it more visible to radar.

“The missile can either be hypersonic or low observable but not both in tandem,” wrote Kaushal.


  1. bob sykes says:

    The real point, however, is that both Russia and China have deployed operational hypersonic missiles, and Russia has used them in combat. The US is still trying to develop hypersonics, and probably won’t deploy them for several years.

    Thirty years of chasing down Muslim peasants cost us several thousand lives and several tens of thousands of cripples. We also spent up to $7 trillion on the project, and in the process we lost our technological leads in many area, and now trail the Russians and Chinese significantly.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    “More visible to radar”

    I take it “blocks radar signals” means deflects, not absorbs. The wave front itself will show up on radar.

  3. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “The missile can either be hypersonic or low observable but not both in tandem,” wrote Kaushal.

    Those grapes are sour, I tell you. Sour!

  4. John Smith says:

    So in other words, US Air Bases are sitting ducks.

  5. TRX says:

    Inertial guidance is good enough to get your missile to the combat zone. It could drop down to Mach 3, take a GPS fix and downlink any further instructions, then boogie back up to Mach 5 for the attack run.

    Another option would be to send a handful of low speed, low-observable drones ahead, possibly at very high altitude, and have them punch through the ionization laser with focussed lasers to transmit guidance data.

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