Russian President Vladimir Putin has dispatched one of his country’s most modern warships armed with advanced hypersonic missiles on a long voyage through the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and into the Indian Ocean, Russian state media reported Wednesday.
The frigate Admiral Gorshkov set off from an unnamed northern Russian port on Wednesday after Putin spoke with the ship’s commander and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu via video link, according to a report from the TASS news agency.
Putin boasted that the ship was carrying Zircon hypersonic missiles, long-range weapons that travel more than five times the speed of sound and are harder to detect and intercept.
“It has no analogues in any country in the world,” Putin said, according to TASS. “I am sure that such powerful weapons will reliably protect Russia from potential external threats and will help ensure the national interests of our country,” he added.
Russia tested the Zircon system in late 2021, firing from the Admiral Gorshkov in the White Sea and hitting a naval target more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) away, according to reports at the time.
The current mission would be its first deployment in a potential combat situation.
“The main efforts during the campaign will be focused on countering Russia’s threats, maintaining regional peace, and stability together with friendly countries,” Shoigu said in the TASS report.
Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine is now in its 10th month, but that conflict was not mentioned specifically in the TASS report.
And whether the Zircon missile could be brought to bear in that war is uncertain.
If it works as advertised by the Russians, it is a fearsome weapon.
The US-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance says the Zircon is “a maneuvering anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile” with a range of somewhere between 500 and 1,000 kilometers (310 to 620 miles).
The alliance says its speed has been put at Mach 8, or almost 9,900 kilometers per hour (6,138 mph). Hypersonic is defined as any speed above Mach 5 (3,836 mph).
“If that information is accurate, the Zircon missile would be the fastest in the world, making it nearly impossible to defend against due to its speed alone,” the alliance says on its website.
The site also points to the missile’s plasma cloud as another “valuable” feature.
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“During flight, the missile is completely covered by a plasma cloud that absorbs any rays of radio frequencies and makes the missile invisible to radars. This allows the missile to remain undetected on its way to the target,” it says.
Add to that the Zircon’s ability to alter its flight path and it becomes an extremely formidable weapon.
But using the Zircon missiles aboard the Admiral Gorshkov against targets in Ukraine is logistically challenging.
From a Russian perspective, the optimal firing range for the weapons would be from the Black Sea, to the south of Ukraine. But to get there, the Russian warship would have to pass through the Turkish-controlled Bosphorus Strait, and Ankara has said since the early stages of the war in Ukraine that it would not allow such access for foreign naval vessels.
While the Admiral Gorshkov could theoretically fire on Ukraine from the northern reaches of the Mediterranean, the flight path to Ukraine would go over NATO countries, something that would be seen as a major escalation of Russian aggression.
TASS said the Gorshkov is also armed with Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, weapons which have a range of up to 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles), according to the CSIS Missile Defense Project. But those weapons, even with their longer range, would face the same problems reaching Ukraine as the Zircons.
Still, the deployment of the Admiral Gorshkov gave Putin something positive to talk about amid large Russian losses against Ukraine, including one of its most prized warships, the Moskva, which was sunk last April in what Ukraine says was an attack by its missile forces.
Analyst Carl Schuster said the deployment makes a political statement for Putin as much as a military one.
“He’s trying to show Russia remains a global player despite the costs and international condemnation of his assault on Ukraine,” Schuster said.
“He can show his domestic audiences that the international reaction is not as effective as stated in the Western media and that Russia still has friends in key areas,” Schuster said. “Internationally, he is signaling that sanctions have not affected the Russian navy’s ability to operate and that it remains a global maritime power.”
Putin praised his military upon the deployment, according to TASS.
“This is great joint work, which ended with a good, expected result,” Putin said.
“We will continue to develop the combat potential of the Armed Forces, make advanced models of weapons and equipment that will guard Russia’s security in the coming decades. This is a promising weapon,” Putin said in the TASS report.