Hypersonic missiles are quickly becoming a key part of Russian military doctrine, but how can Russia’s newest sci-fi system be expected to impact relations with NATO and collective European Security?
Russia’s 3M22 Zircon missile system has the potential to transform maritime warfare. However, the system will have its most significant effect on Russia-NATO relations in the form of uncertainty: limited information and the unsettling of the status quo function as effective lubricants for political and military escalation at NATO’s ever-changing borders.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Tom King. Tom is a graduate student studying Russian politics and security studies at UCL.
Unlike its competitors, a significant proportion of Russian hypersonic missile technology (HMT) efforts have revolved around nuclear-capable hypersonic missile systems — a position justified by President Putin as necessary in light of Washington backing out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002.
To avoid generalisations, this article focuses on the Zircon specifically, instead of the air-launched Kinzhal or boost-glider Avangard systems, as well as on conventional use rather than the issue of HMT’s effect on the nuclear stalemate.
Expected operational impact
Revitalisation of Russia’s ailing Navy is arguably the primary role of the Zircon. Russian naval capabilities have long paled in comparison to the American colossus, their sole aircraft carrier, the diesel-powered Admiral Kuznetsov seemingly destined for the dry dock. A Russian fleet-in-being is incapable of competing with the NATO and U.S. equivalents.
Hypersonic speed combined with impressive, low-flying manoeuvrability allows the Zircon to deliver its potentially carrier–disabling payload without fear of interception or counterattack. Equipping the serviceably large fleet of Russian screening ships (like the Buyan-class corvettes) with the Zircon provides the ability to disable much larger, stronger vessels, unsettling dominant naval doctrine on a scale some compare to the carrier revolution of the 1940s.
Despite Western fears, the Zircon does not necessarily spell the end of NATO’s firm presence near Russian waters.
Due to incomplete development e.g. no submarine variant, existing supersonic stockpiles, and an estimated cost of 1 to 2 million USD per missile, it is highly likely that the Zircon will only enter service in 2022 on a political and psychological level. The bulk of missile-capable ships will instead likely carry the Onyx and subsonic Kalibr missiles for the foreseeable future; Onyx producer NPO Mashinostroyeniya supplied 55 missiles to the Russian navy in 2019, more than the company has manufactured in any other year.
Despite the long timeline and limitations surrounding widespread implementation of the Zircon, Russia continues to celebrate the majesty of the project as NATO members’ nervousness grows — but why is this? The answer lies within the Zircon’s role in Russian identity building, and subsequently the role of perceptions and uncertainty towards hypersonic missile systems.
Politics, perceptions, and uncertainty
The Zircon, whilst not underplaying its impact on the battlefield, affects European security to a certain extent by fostering uncertainty largely through identity building. Implementation of the hypersonic missile system helps unite the domestic Russian base; the Putin regime’s 20 year long framing of Russian identity in terms of security and militarisation allows hypersonic missile systems to have a notable ‘rally around the flag’ effect evocative of the Cold War. This psychological impact and political boon of the Zircon system for Russia lowers the chances of much-needed HMT agreements, be they bilateral or multilateral. Not only is it in the interest of Moscow to maintain its technological advantage, but the militarised, separate civilizational identity means collective European security is not Russia’s priority.
Tensions between NATO and US forces and Russia are not a hypersonic missile-induced phenomenon, with constant altercations and interruptions of drills by both parties. However, as identified by former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges as well as a litany of International Relations scholars, the power vacuums and misunderstandings in the region are what leads to an escalation of these tensions and potential conflict. The secretive, militarily revolutionising, unregulated nature of the Zircon, and a lack of clarity around its use case, threatens to breed misunderstanding and thus escalate tensions. This is where the immediate threat of the Zircon missile system lies for NATO.
The threat of uncertainty presented by the Zircon and Russia’s other hypersonic systems is reminiscent of the infamous Cold War ‘missile gap’ of the 1960s, wherein the United States vastly overestimated Soviet missile stockpiles due to fear and misinformation. Perceptions of Soviet missile capabilities influenced US politics and foreign policy, spiking tensions between the ideological adversaries.
Western answers to the Zircon (both in missiles and updated interception systems) are expected to develop at a speed akin to the systems themselves. However, the dangerous political and operational uncertainty the Zircon brings means attempts to reduce information asymmetry, and open regulatory discussions, is more important now in the system’s formative years, than ever.