Zircon Missiles: Putin’s Hypersonic Response to the Patriot System and the Makiivka Fiasco

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While critics are heard in Russia after the bombardment against a Russian military base in Makiivka, in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin on Wednesday again exhibited the Zircon hypersonic missiles, one of the jewels of the arsenal of Moscow. One way to respond to this attack and to the deployment in Ukraine of the American Patriot air defense system.

The shock wave of the bombardment of Makiivka, the Ukrainian city near Donetsk, in the Donbass, on the night of December 31, 2022 to January 1, 2023, which would have killed 89 Russian soldiers according to Moscow, continues to make waves in Russia.

Anxious not to leave the field open to criticism and to regain control over communication by looking away of the Makiivka fiascoVladimir Putin counter-attacked by attending by videoconference, Wednesday, January 4, the mission launch of a warship equipped with new Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles.

“I am sure that such powerful weapons will allow Russia to be effectively protected from external threats and will help defend national interests,” the Kremlin master said at the ceremony, which was attended by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu since then. an unspecified location.

“It was necessary to provide an answer to this failure on the ground when today, Russia hides its dead less than before, believes Lukas Aubin, research director at Iris, doctor in geopolitics specializing in Russia. Vladimir Putin is preparing the response with this image of a warship equipped with hypersonic missiles. However, we do not yet know the content of this response.

>> To read also: the deadly bombardment of Makiïvka, symbol of the shortcomings of the Russian command

For experts, it is also a response from Moscow to the Biden administration’s promise to supply kyiv with the Patriot air defense system, the most powerful and the most sophisticated available to the American army. It is in this sense that Sergei Shoigu insisted on Wednesday that the Zircon missiles were “capable of overcoming any current or future anti-aircraft defense system”. A barely veiled allusion to the Patriot system.

The Zircon is, in fact, not just any missile since it is hypersonic, that is to say capable of exceeding the speed of Mach 5 (6,174 km/h) “to hit any target 1,000 km away”, assured Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, during a speech in December 2018 during which he confirmed the existence of these new generation weapons.

“During the flight, the missile would be entirely covered with a cloud of plasma which absorbs any radiofrequency rays and makes the missile invisible to radars. This will allow it to remain undetectable”, explains the American think tank Missile Defense Advocacy Alliancein an information note on Zircon.

What effectiveness on the Ukrainian battlefield?

It is impossible to know how many missiles of this type, manufactured by the Russian company KB Mashinostroyeniya (KBM) and measuring between eight and nine meters long, Russia has, nor to what extent it can produce despite the sanctions that hit it.

Some also question their effectiveness in the Ukrainian conflict, when in March 2022 the Russian Ministry of Defense declared that it had used “Kinjal” hypersonic missiles in western Ukraine, without this assertion is not confirmed by another source.

Hypersonic weapons – considered by part of the military experts as the “weapons of the future – have the advantage of being remote-controlled, unlike traditional ballistic missiles, which cannot change course mid-flight. Therefore, this type of armament is supposed to be much more effective against moving targets, such as warships.

“The Zircon are, primarily, anti-ship missiles which can be used incidentally to target land targets,” said Gustav Gressel, specialist in Russian military issues at the European Council for International Relations, in an article published by France 24 in October 2021.

What is certain is that Russia has begun to develop and invest heavily in Zircons in the early 2010s while “Europe and the United States have constantly postponed the modernization of strategic armaments in recent years, and the technological level of part of their equipment dates back to the 1990s”, explained in the same article Alexandre Vautravers, security and armaments expert and editor-in-chief of the Swiss Military Review (RMS).

At the time, he specified that the American efforts to put in place an anti-missile shield did not make it possible to have a defense system “capable of intercepting all the missiles already in existence; such a system would be even less effective against hypersonic missiles, faster and more manoeuvrable”.

Zircon Missiles: Putin’s Hypersonic Response to the Patriot System and the Makiivka Fiasco