Surface Forces: Russia Puts hypersonic Missile On A Ship


January 7, 2023: At the end of 2022 Russia announced that its frigate Gorshkov had been equipped with the Zircon hypersonic missile. These missiles use scramjet technology, which has been around for decades but so far no one has been able to create reliable and accurate missiles using this tech. Russia has been testing Zircon for several years and demonstrated that it can move at hypersonic speed for up to 400 kilometers. There is no proof the Zircon can hit a ship sized target. Achieving hypersonic speed is old tech. It means using a solid fuel booster to boost a missile to high enough speed for its liquid-fueled scram jet engine to work. The final problem is a guidance system that will guide the missile, moving at a speed of two or three kilometers a second, to a ship sized target it will reach in less than a minute. At this point the missile is moving too fast for any current defensive system to detect and intercept. High powered lasers might work, but that approach is highly theoretical, as is the ability of the missile to hit a small target.

The first Gorshkov class frigate did not enter service until 2018. Two more have since joined the fleet and two more are under construction. The navy will receive ten eventually if the money is still available. The Admiral Gorshkov class 5,400 ton “stealth frigates” are the largest surface ships built in Russia since the Cold War ended in 1991. These Project 22350 ships can operate in distant waters and are replacing Cold War era destroyers, few of which can still get to sea. Like most new Russian warships, the Gorshkovs arrived late and in far smaller numbers than originally planned. The original plan, from 2003, was for the first of 20 Gorshkovs to enter service in 2011. Construction began in 2006 and the first Gorshkov was launched in 2010. Once the first Gorshkov was in the water it was only about half complete and work slowed down. Already there were money problems and the plan was reduced to 15, then eight and finally four of these ships. A major reason for the delays and reduction of the number of ships was the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. That meant Russia could not get the gas turbine engines for these ships and that technology was developed and monopolized (during the Soviet period) by Ukrainian plants. It took a lot of money to develop a supplier in Russia and do it in a hurry. The second Gorshkov and its Russian gas turbines began sea trials later in 2018 and by 2020 the reliability of the Russian gas turbine engines was declared satisfactory.

The Gorshkov's are armed with a 100mm gun, two Kashtan autocannon/missile systems for missile defense, 16 VLS cells for Oniks or Zircon anti-ship missiles, or Kaliber land-attack cruise missiles, 32 VLS cells for anti-aircraft missiles (30 kilometers range), eight 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tubes and a helicopter. Crew size is 210 and endurance 30 days on internal fuel and other supplies.

Four Gorshkovs are too little too late and additional four improved models (Project 22350M) are planned but these will not enter service until the mid-2020s, if ever. That is an achievement because Russia was facing the loss of nearly all its surface warships to age and not many replacements entering service. The problem was that by 2010 most of the Cold War era warships that made up the surface fleet since the late 1980s had to be retired. These ships were falling apart, as there was not any money, since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, for repairs and upgrades. Russia came up with more money by 2010 to build enough surface ships to maintain a respectable but much smaller fleet. But there was a problem. Most of Russia's warship building capability had disappeared since 1991. To that end, the government negotiated with France to import modern warship building techniques. This was to be accomplished by purchasing two Mistral amphibious assault ship/helicopter carriers built in France and the right to build two more in Russian shipyards. During that process, Russian shipbuilders would learn how it's done in the West. From 1991 until 2010 most of the Russian construction effort went into finishing a few subs and building some surface ships for export. This plan was another casualty of the Ukraine invasion. The first two Mistrals were complete by 2014 but because of sanctions on Russia (for the Ukraine aggression) France refused to deliver, refunded Russia the billion dollars paid for those two Mistrals and then sold them to Egypt.

In 2010 the Russian surface fleet consisted of one aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 17 destroyers, eleven frigates and about fifty corvettes. There were about twenty smaller (than Mistral) amphibious ships. All these Cold War era ships suffered from years of neglect during the 1990s, and most were not in the best of shape and will be gone by 2020. The one Russian carrier underwent an expensive, and long overdue, refurbishment to keep it in service through the 2020s but most of the other Cold War era surface ships were not worth refurbishing. An exception was made for tw0 Kirov class battlecruisers and two smaller Slava class cruisers. These four ships entered service in the late 1980s and with refurbishment have another few years of useful life in them, though one was sunk in the current Ukraine war. Ten destroyers that entered service at the end of the Cold War, or were nearly finished, are in a similar situation.

The Gorshkovs were meant to replace the 32 Krivak class frigates. These 3,500-ton ships were built in the 1970s and 80s and nearly all were retired by 2010. The Gorshkov's cost about $400 million each and will replace larger ships like the 8,400-ton Sovremenny class destroyers. These older, larger, ships, were designed for high seas operations far from Russian shores. The new Russian fleet will be a return to the traditional Russian coastal navy. Only a few of the original 21 Sovremenny are still in service and that is usually because of a recent refurbishment. These ships all were built in the 1980s and 90s. The last four built were for China. The Russian fleet could no longer afford large warships like this, but China could and is now building its own designs that are more similar to American designs.

The Russian navy is in desperate shape. The latest example of this could be seen in the continuing delays getting the new Gorshkov class into service. Construction on these began in 2006 but by 2010 only one had been launched and it was still only half complete. Three have been completed and work on two proceeds. The navy wanted twenty Gorshkovs to replace the Cold War-era Sovremenny class destroyers and Burevestnik class frigates. The government has only promised money for twelve Gorshkovs and has since raised that to fifteen. It wasn’t until 2018 that the first Gorshkov passed sea trials. These ships cost about $400 million each.

Submarines were one ship type that got priority for new construction even in the 1990s but that has now slowed down. This is critical when it comes to building replacements for the last Cold War class of SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile subs) which were all completed in the 1980s. These have been quietly retired or “semi-retired” (only going to sea for training). Priority was put on building eight new Borei class SSBNs. These were delayed and the first one did not enter service until 2013. There are now six in service but construction plans for more are on hold. Similar priority was given to building some nuclear cruise missile subs that carry anti-ship missiles as well as traditional SSNs (nuclear attack subs). There were also a few non-nuclear subs built as well.




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