Russia's New Hypersonic Superweapon Against the West Is Actually Pathetic

Putin says a new ship carrying hypersonic missiles patrolling the Atlantic is Russia's trump card against the West, but the reality is likely different.
Kremlin photo.

Russia has deployed its frigate Admiral Gorshkov to tour the world’s oceans equipped with Zircon hypersonic missiles. Russia claims the Zircon is so fast it can avoid Western missile defense systems, but the weapons are unproven. 

In 2019, Admiral Gorshkov circled the globe and visited ports in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In 2023, there are fewer ports where a Russian ship is welcome and its movements will be limited.


Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu announced the ship’s voyage on Wednesday. “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, according to Russian state-owned news agency TASS.

Putin called the frigate and the hypersonic missile a promising weapon, 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,” Putin said.

In a Telegram message, former Russian president and current Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security council Dmitry Medvedev, called the launch of the hypersonic missile packed ship a “major New Year gift,” that would bring anyone posing a direct threat to Russia or its allies to their senses.

That’s a lot of political posturing for a single ship that will only be traveling the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea bearing a weapon that no one has seen do what its makers claim.

According to Russia, the Zircon is a hypersonic missile capable of traveling 7,000 miles per hour. It tested the weapon in 2020 and again in 2022 and told the world the test was successful, that the weapon had reached those top speeds, and had flown more than 600 miles.


If true, it’s an impressive new weapon system. Hypersonic missiles work by being faster than the weapons used to shoot them down. The idea is to restrict the reaction time of the enemy and clear anti-missile defense quickly. That’s if it works, and there’s reason to doubt that it does. There’s little public information available about the weapon and a Russian admiral said the weapon was years from an official deployment in 2020.

There’s also the question of how many Zircons Admiral Gorshkov could possibly have. The Kremlin didn’t say when it made this recent announcement, and there’s reason to believe Moscow’s weapon construction has floundered over the past year. Russian weapons require vast amounts of American electronics to function, and sanctions and the effective end of Western business dealings with Russia have shut down that supply chain.

The travels of Admiral Gorshkov will be limited in a way it wasn’t in 2019. The war in Ukraine has made Russia an international pariah and some countries have promised to restrict the movement of Russian ships around the world. Turkey, notably, has said it would block any Russian ships trying to enter the Mediterranean from the Black Sea.

Putin has been pushing new and better types of Russian missiles for a few years now. Another scary-sounding system is the Avangard, a hypersonic glide reentry vehicle meant to be used in nuclear missiles. The pitch is that the Avangard can carry a highly maneuverable nuclear warhead past existing missile defense systems. Like Russia’s assertions about the Zircon, these claims remain unsubstantiated.

Moscow has also claimed its working on a nuclear powered cruise missile called the SSC-X-9 Skyfall. In theory, the missile would use a nuclear engine to stay in the sky almost indefinitely. An accident in 2019 at the Nenoksa Missile Test Site in the Arctic killed seven people. International monitors registered a radiation leak at the site and Moscow claimed it was due to a nuclear reactor, but outside experts and U.S. intelligence officials believe an accident related to the development of the Skyfall caused both the leaks and the deaths.

With fewer international waters to travel in and a shoddy track record of developing new weapons, the journey of the Admiral Gorshkov with its fancy new weapons appears to be a pathetic show of force from a country on a losing streak.