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Putin's hypersonic missile is coated with a kind of plasma

Up to Mach 10 fast and undetectable by radar: Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin has put the "Zirkon" into service. Are such hypersonic missiles a game changer in the Ukraine war?

Marc Finaud

Senior Advisor at Gravity 4.0

File Image: Zircon Missile

In May, Russia reported the first successful flight, and now the first Russian ship is apparently armed with it: Against the background of ongoing problems in his war of aggression against Ukraine, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin put the new Zirkon hypersonic missile into service this week.

Due to its extremely high speed, it is practically unstoppable by anti-aircraft guns. Questions to weapons and disarmament expert Marc Finaud*.

Mr Finaud, what can you tell us about the hypersonic missile that Putin has now put into operation?

This type of rocket is very fast: five times faster than the speed of sound. So it flies at Mach 5 (6125 kilometers per hour). "Zircon" should even be able to reach up to 9 to 10 Mach. It is also highly maneuverable and difficult to intercept, unlike a ballistic missile, which can calculate its trajectory, making it vulnerable. In addition, the rocket is coated in a kind of plasma, which prevents radar devices from detecting it. This means that the air pressure in front of the weapon forms a plasma cloud as it moves, which absorbs radio waves and makes them practically invisible to active radar systems. It looks fantastic on paper.

"It's in response to Ukraine's interception of traditional cruise missiles and ballistic missiles."

Is Russia now using "Zircon" against Ukraine?

no Moscow wants to equip its ships in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean with "Zirkon" missiles. Ukraine is not mentioned - also because "Zirkon" would have to be shot down from the Black Sea due to its limited range. But Turkey does not allow warships to pass through the Bosphorus. The fact that Putin has now put "Zirkon" into service is a political rather than a military message. Russia wants to cover up weakness and signal that it has an answer to the fact that in Ukraine the majority of its traditional cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and drones are also intercepted by missile defense systems such as Iris or Patriot.**

The Russian frigate "Gorshkov" was equipped with the hypersonic weapon "Zirkon" (Tsirkon). Here she is leaving the naval base in Sweromorsk, Russia, on January 4, 2022. Source: Reuters

What hypersonic missiles does Russia have?

In addition to "Zirkon", Russia has developed the hypersonic glide missile "Avangard". The Kinshal hypersonic missile has been in use in Ukraine since last March.

Shouldn't that show up in the Ukraine in the most devastating way?

"Kinzhal" has only a medium range and is fired with a jet. This is risky as Russia does not dominate Ukrainian airspace and a MiG armed with hypersonic missiles can therefore be intercepted and shot down. The high costs further contribute to the fact that kinschal has been used a few times since March, but not on a large scale. In any case, Moscow is currently pursuing the strategy of primarily attacking civilian, non-important military targets.

"We are at the beginning of the arms race with hypersonic weapons."

Do hypersonic missiles also have disadvantages?

Depending on the destination, their range. "Kinzhal" is limited to 1000 kilometers, so not comparable to an ICBM. In addition, the hypersonic missile can be equipped with nuclear warheads, but this should reduce speed and range due to the weight. So there are definitely limitations.

Will hypersonic weapons change wars in the future?

Possibly. We are at the beginning of the hypersonic arms race. Even countries without nuclear weapons, such as Australia, have them. Behind this is security thinking: the ability to circumvent foreign defense measures is the key to improving one's own defense capability.

** The first version said that «Himars» would intercept Russian missiles and drones. This is incorrect, the Himars multiple rocket launcher artillery system is not an anti-missile system.

(The interview was conducted by Ann Guenter and originally published in 20 Minutes newspaper.)

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