The Yasen-Ms are smaller than Severodvinsk, but also reportedly have various improvements, including changes that further reduce their acoustic signature, making them harder to detect and track. The original Yasen design, also known as Project 885, was already understood to be very quiet and otherwise advanced compared to existing Russian submarines. You can read more about the Yasen and Yasen-M
Back in 2019, the state-run Russia-1 television channel did air a segment in which newscaster Dmitry Kiselyov bombastically claimed that submarines carrying Zircon missiles could put targets along the East and West Coasts of the United States at risk during a potential major conflict between the two countries. The segment bizarrely identified a number of former U.S. military installations that have been closed for years, including Fort Ritchie in Maryland and Fort McClellan in California, as among the potential targets for these weapons. It also specifically mentioned the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station, an obscure naval facility used to send very low-frequency transmissions to U.S. Navy submarines in the Pacific.
It is important to note that Zircon is expected to have a shorter overall range than many members of the existing Kalibr series, including variants capable of carrying nuclear warheads. At the same time, U.S. officials have acknowledged that the Yasen and Yasen-M class submarines do present new challenges to the security of the homeland, concerns that would only be magnified by the integration of hypersonic cruise missiles into their arsenals.
“Russia just fielded their second Sev [Severodvinsk] class, which is on par with ours,” U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, head of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), told members of Congress earlier this year. “Within a five-year period, they’ll have eight to nine of those submarines, which will be a persistent proximate threat off of our east and west coasts that we haven’t had ever in the past.”
American officials have also previously cited how Kalibr missiles already allow the Russian Navy to hold friendly capitals, among other targets, in Europe at risk, especially when launched from submarines that may not even have to leave port to carry out their strikes. Zircon, even with its shorter range, would again add a new dimension to the complete threat picture in that region.
The United States, along with other countries, has been warning in recent years of increasing competition with Russia, and the potential for conflict, as result, in other areas, as well. This includes in the Arctic and the Pacific, where any future high-end fight would have a major maritime focus and where Zircon could have a significant impact on operations.
The real threat Zircon presents when fired from any platform, of course, depends on the actual capabilities of the weapon and how much progress the Russians have truly made in its development in the past few years. How close the Russian Navy might be to getting any substantial quantity of these weapons is unclear, as well, with Russian defense procurement plans often being upended by budgetary concerns and other issues. Hypersonic air-breathing vehicles are notoriously complex systems that have proven challenging for various countries, including the United States, to develop even on an experimental basis in the past. A briefing that individuals from Boeing presented to the Military Affairs Committee of the Abilene Chamber of Commerce in Abilene, Texas, last month indicated that Russia was closest to fielding an operational air-breathing hypersonic weapon, but it’s unclear what information this assessment was based on.
All told, it remains to be seen whether the Russian government will offer harder evidence to support its statements about Zircon’s design and performance as the end of the year, by which point the weapon’s official test phase is supposed to have wrapped up, draws closer.
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