Russia's 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic missile. Screen grab: Military Technology Zone/ YouTube
Russia's 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic missile. Moscow has not publicly released any image of its Zmeevik hypersonic weapon. Screen grab: Military Technology Zone / YouTube

Russia is working on its own version of a carrier-killer hypersonic missile according to state media reports, a move that likely aims to fortify its naval bastions in the North Atlantic and Northern Pacific amid spiking geopolitical tensions with the United States and wider West.

On July 12, Russian state news broadcaster TASS announced that the country is developing the so-called Zmeevik hypersonic carrier-killer missile. The TASS report claimed that the missile will have similar characteristics to China’s DF-21D and DF-26, and will have a flight range of 4,000 kilometers.

The same report said the weapon could enter service with Russian Navy coastal defense units.

The Zmeevik missile solves the problem of equipping surface warships with weapons capable of attacking aircraft carriers and carrier battle groups, notes military expert Vasily Dandikin in

He states that while existing submarine-launched and shore-based anti-ship missiles are effective within engagement ranges under 1,000 kilometers, operations in the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans need longer-range systems to deter enemy warships from getting in range to launch cruise-missile strikes.

The Zmeevik’s development was spurred by the United States’ own hypersonic weapons program, as noted by Alexei Leonkov in a Radio 1 interview. Leonkov, chief editor of the Arsenal of the Fatherland military magazine, said that while the US may have built hypersonic weapons that can reach Mach 5 speeds, they still fly mostly on a ballistic trajectory, unlike Russian hypersonics such as the Zmeevik, which feature maneuverability to evade air defenses.

Dandikin notes accordingly that the advent of hypersonic weapons has changed the Russian Navy’s research priorities from submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to hypersonic weapons such as the Zmeevik.

While carrier battlegroups feature heavily armed warships for fleet air defense, these ships are still potentially vulnerable to missile attacks. Naval News notes the recent sinking of the Moskva cruiser as a case in point. Despite the Moskva having long-range air defense radars and layered anti-air defenses, Ukraine still managed to sink the cruiser using Neptune shore-based anti-ship missiles.

This huge loss undoubtedly had a profound impact on the Russian Navy, which may have highlighted the vulnerability of its large surface combatants against shore-based missile attacks. At the same time, it may have also demonstrated the potential vulnerabilities of US warships to such weapons.

Russia’s Moskva warship lists after a missile attack in April 2022. Image: Twitter / CBS News / OSINT Technical / Screengrab

To be sure, the Moskva has less advanced defenses than US warships, which means that it could be – and was – sunk by an anti-ship missile derived from an existing Soviet-era design. To successfully engage US carrier battlegroups, Russia needs a much more advanced missile.

Should the Zmeevik enter service relatively soon, it may be a potent deterrent against the US and allied naval freedom of action, as the US has not yet developed an effective defense against hypersonic weapons, notes Naval News.

The Zmeevik may become a key asset in Russia’s naval bastion defense strategy, which the NATO Combined Joint Operations from the Sea Center of Excellence (CJOS COE) describes as consisting of a geographically and horizontally layered defense.

The same source notes that a bastion defense features an outer area with sea denial as its primary objective and an inner space that aims for sea control. As such, deploying shore-based missiles like the Zmeevik would increase Russia’s weapons range and expand its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) blanket within the semi-enclosed waters of the Baltic and North Seas and in the Sea of Okhotsk and Kuril Islands in the Pacific.

However, the Zmeevik may turn out to be vaporware, despite the bold claims being made about its capabilities by Russian military experts. The 1945 military news site notes numerous issues that raise questions about the integrity of Russian claims about the Zmeevik.

First, there have been no verified Zmeevik launch tests, even though the weapon has long been in development, the 1945 report says. This does not mean that a prototype test launch has never occurred, as the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia were and are anti-ship missile technology pioneers.

Second, it is unclear how Russia will integrate the Zmeevik with other systems. Because it is an over-the-horizon missile, it needs integration with maritime reconnaissance aircraft, drones and satellites for effective targeting.

Third, it is unknown how far Russia has actually come with the Zmeevik’s development. Until a successful Zmeevik missile test is verified, reports about the new weapon may be propaganda or disinformation to confuse US and allied defense planners.

Western analysts may dismiss Russian claims about the Zmeevik as empty saber-rattling until the weapon is proven to work, including in the next standoff or engagement between Russia and the West.