Weapons: Super Small Super Ships

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November 23, 2019: The Russian Navy announced that its new Gremyashchiy class corvettes would be armed with a radical new kind of anti-ship missile, one employing a scramjet engine. This 3M22 Zircon missile would be the first operational cruise missile using scramjet propulsion. It is not certain that the Zircon is really operational and works reliably. To make that happen Russia would have had to overcome some formidable technical problems with regard to design and manufacturing of such a missile. Scamjet tech has been around for decades but the problem has always been controlling a scamjet propelled missile moving at over 900 meters a second. That’s faster than most rifle bullets and a scamjet moves at more than twice that speed (about 6,000 kilometers an hour).

The specs for Zircon sound like a scramjet weapon. It is a two stage missile with the first stage using a rocket to get the missile up to a high enough speed (at least 3,000 kilometers an hour) for the scramjet to work. Once that speed is achieved the scramjet takes over for the last minutes of flight. Despite the high speed the Zircon must remain very maneuverable to hit the target ship. Description of the Zircon have lacked a lot of detail but the missile is fired from the same type of VLS cell used by the Kalibr cruise missile, which is similar to the American Tomahawk. In theory, a workable scramjet missile could fit in the VLS cell. Zircon is described as having a max range of 500 kilometers and a 300 kg (660 pound) warhead. Even without a warhead exploding, getting hit by a Zircon, traveling twice as fast as a rifle bullet, would create devastating impact damage on a ship.  

What makes scramjets work is the compression of the incoming air, without the use of a fan system (as in conventional jet engines). But while scramjets have been in development for half a century, the lack of adequate materials (to handle the high heat and pressure) and adequate design tools, frustrated attempts to build workable, and reliable, scramjets. Scramjets have few moving parts but must cope with very extreme conditions and the design challenges have proved very frustrating.

The materials problems have been overcome. The most recent documented (made public) scramjet program was the American the X-51A Waverider project that was halted in 2013 but not forgotten (and possibly resumed). The problem with X-51A was that it could not be made reliable enough. The X-51 tests, like all previous ones, ended with the aircraft crashing. The next step was to get longer hypersonic engine use, de-acceleration, and landing via parachute (and eventually an auxiliary engine.) A 2010 flight test had the 8 meter (36 foot) long, cruise missile-like X-51 aircraft boosted to 3,300 kilometers an hour, using a solid-fuel rocket, at which point the scramjet engine took over, and successfully operated for over two minutes, achieving speeds of nearly 6,000 kilometers an hour. This was the longest a scramjet had ever operated. The previous best was ten seconds. By 2013 the 4th test got the liquid fuel engine going for five minutes. Going beyond the 2013 test proved too expensive and time consuming to continue when there were cheaper alternatives available, and these depended more on getting into orbit and letting gravity provide and maintain the high speed. Russia, China and India (which collaborated with Russia on the Brahmos missile) have all said future models of some existing missiles (like Brahmos) would have a scramjet second stage. No one has yet delivered a verifiable working scramjet missile.

Russia is having more verifiable success with its smaller surface warships. The Gremyashchiy (Project 20385) class corvettes are real and the first one is undergoing sea trials and should be in service by the end of 2019. Displacing 2,500 tons, Gremyashchiys have a top speed of 50 kilometers an hour, a crew of 100, endurance of two weeks and a range (without refueling) of 7,400 kilometers. Armament consists of one 100mm gun, two AK-630 autocannon for close-in defense against missiles and small craft, eight VLS cells for Kalibr or Zircon missiles, sixteen smaller VLS cells for Redult short-range anti-aircraft missiles, eight torpedo tubes for lightweight 330mm anti-submarine torpedoes and two pedestals mounted 14.5mm machine-guns. There is a landing pad and hangar for a helicopter. The first Gremyashchiy is about four years late because as originally designed it was to have German engines. That was no longer possible after 2014 because of the sanctions imposed because of Russia invading Ukraine. One more Gremyashchiy is being built and the ultimate goal is to have four of them. These will complement the slightly smaller Steregushchiy (Project 20380) class corvettes. Six of these are in service and six more are being built with the ultimate goal of having 24 of them. With access to resupply ports or an accompanying replenishment ships these corvettes can travel to anywhere on the planet.

These corvettes are replacing the larger Cold War era frigates and destroyers that Russia can no longer afford to build or operate. Russia has been successful at designing and building these new, smaller warships. For example, at the end of 2018 the Russian Navy achieved a rare feat, it put into service the first of two classes of new warships and did it on time. The first of 22 Karakurt (Project 22800) Corvettes entered service in the Baltic Sea. Nine more are in various states of construction in three shipyards. This is a new type of coastal corvette that is more capable on the open seas. Some of them are being built in the Crimean shipyards Russia acquired in 2014 when they basically took Crimea from Ukraine. Russia has been building a lot more small corvettes since the 1990s for a number of reasons. First, the Russian shipyards have proved more effective in building these small (under 1,000 tons) ships. Then there is the great need for heavily armed corvettes to serve as a low-cost patrol vessel that can handle just about anything it runs into during coastal patrols and can even be useful in wartime. Finally, there is a growing export market for this type of ship.

The Karakurts are 800 ton ships that are 65 meters (213 feet) long and have a top speed of 56 kilometers an hour. They are armed with one 76mm cannon, eight launch tubes holding 1.2 ton 3K14 Kalibr anti-ship missiles (range 300 kilometers) or P800 anti-ship missiles (range 600 kilometers), two 14.5mm machine-guns two AK-630 multi-barrel 30mm autocannon for close-range defense against missiles and aircraft and 32 57E6 anti-aircraft missiles (range 20 kilometers). There is also a launching pad for large helicopter UAVs. The crew of 30 can stay at sea for 15 days at a time before needing to refuel and resupply. Each Karakurt cost approximately $30 million.

Further south, in the Black Sea, the first of six Project 22160 patrol ships, of the Vasily Bykov class, entered service. This is a larger, 1,300 to 1,700 ton (depending on weapons carried) OPV (offshore patrol vessel). These ships are 94 meters (308 feet) long and normally lightly armed with one 76mm or 57mm rapid-fire gun, two 14.5mm machine-guns and a DP-64 or DP-65 underwater swimmer detection and grenade launcher system. The two DP systems come with a sonar that can detect and locate underwater swimmers and the grenade launchers send out miniature depth charges that will kill or incapacitate the underwater swimmers. These two systems are often used for protecting ports or anchorages. The ship also has a helicopter pad and a large space for installing additional weapons like Kaliber cruise missiles or Paket NK anti-submarine/anti-torpedo torpedoes. The Paket system also comes with a sonar that can detect subs or incoming torpedoes. The Paket 324mm torpedoes can attack either. The ship has a top speed of 55 kilometers an hour and there is fuel and provisions on board to keep the ship and crew of 80 at sea for up to 60 days. Potential export customers are already interested mainly because of the variety of weapon and equipment options for this OPV, which can cost up to $80 million each depending on accessories.

The Russian navy, because of budget cuts, has suspended or canceled work on many new larger ships and subs leaving the Navy to apply all its procurement efforts to obtaining smaller ships on budget and on time. Not only are the smaller ships cheaper but they can be built quickly and are easier to monitor for quality control. The shipyards producing these smaller ships know they are fortunate because so many other years have had construction contracts canceled or suspended.

 


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