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Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx Russian occupiers near Bastion complex, which is probably capable of launching Onyx and Zircon missiles (Russian media)

This week, Russia once again attempted to strike Kyiv with Zircon missiles. Both were shot down straight above the capital, while the air raid alerts sounded simultaneously with the explosions, underscoring the danger of hypersonic weapons. More details about Zircon, its differences from the Onyx missile, and why they are difficult to intercept are in the article below.

Sources: Wikipedia, Defense Express, statements from the spokesperson for the Air Force Illia Yevlash, Navy of Ukraine Dmytro Pletenchuk, head of the laboratory of Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise (KSRIFE) Andrii Kulchytskyi, as well as comments from aviation and missile weapons expert Valerii Romanenko.


Attack on Kyiv on March 25: What is known

On March 25, explosions rocked Kyiv, as the air defense was activated against missiles. Debris fell in the Dniprovskyi, Solomianskyi, Holosiivskyi, and Pecherskyi districts. In the latter, it was a hit on a three-story building housing a gym, congress hall, and exhibition center of the Mykhailo Boichuk Kyiv State Academy of Decorative-Applied Arts and Design. 10 people were injured, and windows were shattered in neighboring residential buildings.

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx

Consequences of debris falling on Pechersk in Kyiv on March 25 (photo by Vitalii Nosach/RBC-Ukraine)

For more details on the attack's aftermath, see the photo report by RBC-Ukraine.

As Commander of the Air Force Mykola Oleshchuk said, the Russians struck with two ballistic missiles from occupied Crimea, both of which were shot down. According to Defense Express, there were Zircon missiles and collected debris will allow to study the engine type, guidance system, and construction materials. It is necessary to assess the actual capabilities of the so-called "no analogs" missile that Vladimir Putin constantly boasts about.

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from OnyxDebris of the Zircon missile (photo by

Earlier, occupiers first struck Kyiv with Zircon on February 7. That attack was also successfully repelled, and the debris fell in the Desnianskyi district, but identification took about five days because of their small quantity. After the strike on Monday, it was achieved faster, and the Zircon attack is a confirmed fact.

Identification takes time because the debris needs to be found and collected. Moreover, there aren't many people in Ukraine who can identify a specific type of missile. Essentially, only experts from the capital's KSRIFE can do so, explains expert Valerii Romanenko.

"They identified (Zircon - Ed.) almost immediately upon receiving the details. After an explosion, engine elements or tail sections usually remain. It's enough to find the marking 3M22 or 3…22 with any letter in the middle. Plus, no one knows what this missile looks like at all, there were no photos before. Therefore, the official confirmation is possible only by the markings on its elements," he told RBC-Ukraine.

Key points about Zircon and why it is a "powerless missile"

Zircon (3M22) is an anti-ship missile claimed to be hypersonic and with a hypersonic air-breathing propulsion system. Its development began in 2011, testing started in 2015, and in 2021, launches were reported from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov and the submarine Severodvinsk.

According to data, in January 2023, Zircon could have been put into service, although many sources doubt it. The missile is designed to hit surface ships equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems.

Specifications are not disclosed, but some parameters are still claimed:

  • range - 600-1000 km
  • flight altitude - 30-40 km
  • speed - 5.5 Mach cruising and up to 7.5 Mach terminal
  • warhead mass - 300 kg
  • length - 8-10 m.

Targeting is accomplished from a satellite or reconnaissance aircraft. Presumably, Zircon is a two-stage missile: the first stage is a solid-fuel engine, and the second one is an air-breathing air ramjet. It can be launched not only from combat ships and submarines but also from mobile coastal launchers.

For more details on the claimed parameters, read the separate report on RBC-Ukraine.

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx

Possible launch of the Zircon missile from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov (Russian media)

As noted by Defense Express, the stated characteristics are questionable because initially, Russia itself mentioned a range of 400 km and a speed of 6 Mach, then 600 km, and up to 1000 km, and almost 9 Mach. The warhead mass is indicated to be between 300 and 500 kg.

In reality, the warhead revealed a major deception by the Russian Ministry of Defense, according to analysts. The warhead analysis shows that its characteristics have been adjusted to meet the customer's requirements at the cost of transforming it into a "powerless missile."

Referring to Defense Express sources, preliminary estimates indicate that the mass is about 100-150 kg, with up to 40 kg of explosives. The warhead itself has a fragmentation-explosive design, an atypical shape, and a small weight for anti-ship and other missile warheads.

For comparison: the aeroballistic Kh-47 Kinzhal has a warhead of 500 kg, cruise missiles Kh-101, Kh-555, Kalibr – 400 kg each, and anti-ship Onyx – 300 kg. The closest analog in terms of mass is the anti-ship missiles Kh-31 and Kh-35. In the case of Zircon, it is capable of sinking corvettes, not frigates or destroyers, due to its small warhead explained by the extended range of up to 1000 km. However, this excludes the destruction of the targets declared by the developer.

According to Valerii Romanenko, the 300 kg warhead was based on calculations. A hypersonic missile like Zircon requires more fuel than Onyx missiles.

"Where to get the space for fuel in a missile that is supposed to launch from a standard container? Only by reducing the warhead. When it turned out that its total weight is only 140-150 kg, with 40 kg of explosives, the perception of what kind of missile it is and its purpose changed completely," he noted.

The ratio of the total warhead mass to the explosive mass indicates that Zircon is not a missile for destroying any ground targets. It is more suitable for strikes on ships or underground protected objects, similar to Storm Shadow or Taurus missiles.

"Due to the unclear ratio, it turns out that all this is a big bluff. The warhead shell is massive, its construction is similar to the Storm Shadow or Taurus warhead. It is a very strong steel shell with minimal explosives to penetrate concrete or armor with subsequent explosions. We've seen before how one Storm Shadow managed to destroy a landing ship or submarine on the slips in Sevastopol," explained the expert.

In his opinion, Zircon is fundamentally unsuitable for hitting ground targets. By the way, there are also questions about hitting underground targets, as unlike Storm Shadow, the missile does not fall vertically on the target but at an angle of 30 degrees.

"This greatly reduces penetrative ability. In general, one can say that Zircon, aside from problems with control and accuracy, has problems with impact. So, it can be called a big Russian bluff," Romanenko added.

Just minutes away: Zircon's flight time to Ukrainian cities

Zircon has indeed turned out to be a hypersonic missile with better speed parameters than the aeroballistic Kh-47 Kinzhal thanks to the air-breathing ramjet engine, which allows Zircon to keep constant hypersonic speed.

The first stage lifts 3M22 to a significant height and accelerates it to speeds where the hypersonic engine kicks in. Then, at an altitude of several dozen kilometers, the missile reaches a constant speed of 5.5 Mach (6700 km/h) in the cruising phase. In the target area, Zircon briefly accelerates to 7.5 Mach (9200 km/h), but closer to the ground, the speed drops to 4.5 Mach (5500 km/h).

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx

The Zircon type missile can reach major cities in Ukraine in a matter of minutes.

While praising Zircon, Russian dictator Putin claimed a speed of up to 9 Mach (11,000 km/h), but the actual capabilities turned out to be lower. The same can be said about the range of 700 km, while it was declared to be a thousand kilometers, notes Defense Express.

Recently, the Southern Defense Forces of Ukraine reported a speed of 9,000 km/h as average for this type of missile, often even higher. Based on this data, the approximate flight times are:

  • Odesa, Kherson, Mykolaiv – up to 1 minute
  • Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro – up to 2.5 minutes
  • Kropyvnytskyi – up to 3 minutes

There were reports claiming that Zircon could reach Kyiv in about three minutes. However, 9,000 km/h is still a short-term maximum speed. Considering the distance from the launch site in Crimea to Kyiv, it's about 7 minutes (if launched from shafts near Sevastopol) or 6 minutes (from coastal complexes at Cape Tarkhankut). However, accurate parameters are needed, including trajectory with maneuvers, especially since 3M22 follows an aeroballistic trajectory. Therefore, it's unlikely anyone can give an exact flight time to any city in Ukraine.

In the case of Kinzhals, the alarm is raised in advance because the MiG-31K aircraft appears on radars even before reaching the launch boundaries. The danger of Zircon lies in ground launch, which takes valuable minutes to detect, leaving little time to reach shelter. Hence, such a missile can strike much more unexpectedly.

Why intercepting Zircon is difficult but still achievable

The Kremlin constantly stresses that Zircon is capable of bypassing existing and even prospective missile defense systems. However, it turned out that its speed drops below hypersonic on the terminal section. In practice, the missile has shown vulnerability against systems like Patriot and SAMP-T.

"Talking about Zircons... When they enter the strike trajectory, their speed drops to about 3700 km/h. At this moment we can use our anti-ballistic complexes. These are SAMP-T and Patriot," said Air Force spokesman Illia Yevlash.

Andrii Kulchytskyi, head of the military research laboratory at the Kyiv Scientific Research Institute of Forensic Expertise (KSRIFE), mentioned that the missile doesn't fulfill its combat task and "flies off target." All the hyped-up characteristics with "super" or "hyper" are essentially empty words. The Zircon is still a long way from being operationally deployed. He also added that one of the fragments of a downed missile clearly showed it was hit by a Patriot.

As of March 2024, Ukraine has between three to five Patriot batteries and one SAMP-T. They are often mentioned concerning other missiles like Onyx, which the Russians periodically use to threaten the south. There's also a notion that Zircon is the next generation of the Soviet Onyx.

What is known about the Onyx missile and its differences from Zircon

In July 2023, Russian occupiers intensified strikes with Onyx missiles immediately after exiting the grain deal. Throughout the summer and fall, they targeted ports in Odesa and the region, grain storage facilities, the maritime station, the Odesa hotel, and more. The latest reports of launches were in November, with no confirmed interceptions.

The Onyx is a supersonic anti-ship missile of medium range. It's a Soviet development from the 1970s designed for strikes against surface, naval groups, ships, and land infrastructure.

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from OnyxMock-up of the anti-ship missile Onyx (Russian media)

Declared specifications:

  • length: 8 m
  • speed: maximum 2.6 Mach (3182 km/h); near the surface – 2 Mach (2448 km/h)
  • flight altitude: up to 14000 m on the cruise phase; 10-15 m on the terminal phase
  • range: 300 km
  • warhead weight: up to 300 kg

There is a modernized version called Onyx-M with a claimed range of up to 800 km. However, there is no information on whether it has entered wide-scale production.

The uniqueness of this type lies in its flight trajectory at a high altitude and drop towards the target. During the cruise phase, they ascend to 14 km, then lower to 10-15 m during the terminal phase, flying with terrain following.

For more details about this missile, read the separate report on RBC-Ukraine.

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx

The estimated operational radius of the basic Onyx (photo by mapsdirections)

Theoretically, the basic Onyx lags behind Zircon in some parameters. For instance, when launched from Crimea, it reaches Odesa, Ochakiv, Kherson, Mykolaiv, etc., whereas the latest missile reaches at least Kyiv. In terms of speed, the Soviet-era sample is significantly slower and doesn't ascend as high.

According to Romanenko, Onyx and Zircon have nothing in common structurally. The latter consists of two parts: a solid-fuel booster and a rocket with a ramjet engine. Onyx, on the other hand, has an air intake in the nose section and a conventional turbojet engine.

However, one aspect connects both missiles – the launch systems, such as coastal complexes called Bastion.

Bastion - one launcher for both missiles

A spokesperson for the Navy Dmytro Pletenchuk mentioned that the missiles launched towards Kyiv on March 25 were from ground platforms in Crimea, specifically anti-ship complexes Bal and Bastion.

"These are Bal and Bastion anti-ship complexes... I can only stress that they (missiles - Ed.) were launched from the territory of Crimea, from ground platforms. They were definitely not launched from ships," he said.

Adaptation of Bastion for Zircon was reported in 2020. In the fall of 2022, Russian media wrote about a test sample of a mobile installation unified for both missiles. The name wasn't disclosed, but it was mentioned that, like Bastion, it could carry two missiles. Based on open sources, it's simply an adaptation of the coastal complex.

Ballistics from Crimea: All about Zircon missile and its differences from Onyx

Coastal missile complex Bastion (photo by

The mobile variant is based on the MZKT-7930 chassis (8x8 wheel formula, load capacity up to 25 tons). The complex includes a combat control vehicle, transport-loading vehicles, and a combat-duty vehicle. It can be equipped with a self-propelled radar. The maximum missile load is 24, deployment time from the travel state is less than 5 minutes, and autonomous standby is 24 hours.

As Onyx missiles are challenging targets, the most effective way to counter them is by destroying the launchers. It was stated by the Air Force last year, and it seems logical for Zircon as well. However, during the two years of the Russian-Ukrainian war, there have been no confirmed cases of destroying Bastions.

In August 2023, Ukraine attacked Russian air defense positions at Cape Tarkhankut. Among other things, there were reports of hitting Bastion, but according to the Defense Intelligence, only S-400 air defense systems were confirmed as hit.

The problem is that Ukraine currently lacks the means to reach Bastions, notes Valerii Romanenko. For instance, to launch a Storm Shadow missile against them, one needs to detect the target on-site, attach the missile to a Su-24 aircraft, lift it into the air, reach the launch boundaries, and so on.

"This whole process takes at least an hour. In contrast, Bastion coming to position, launching missiles, and leaving the position takes a maximum of 10-15 minutes. Not to mention inputting coordinates and flight routes for Storm Shadow. All of this takes up to half an hour. We simply don't have the means to strike. If we had ballistic missiles like Grim that we developed, we could talk about that," he said.

Why Zircons target fortified Kyiv and whether mass strike is possible

According to Austrian military analyst Tom Cooper, the Russians on March 25 may have launched not two but eight Zircon missiles, allegedly targeting Poltava, Kremenchuk, and the Odesa region. However, this information has not been officially commented on. Taking everything into account, at the moment, we can confidently speak only about the attack on Kyiv. Air Force spokesman Illia Yevlash speculated on why the occupiers began using hypersonic weapons more actively.

"The fact that they are using them (Zircons - Ed.) most likely indicates a shortage of other weapons. If they had enough cruise missiles, Iskanders, perhaps others, they would use them. Now we see that they are trying to use these quite expensive missiles," he said.

But there may be another reason.

"Like a certain experiment. Testing our air defense system, where and how it covers, to further use this in planning future air attacks," Yevlash added.

Expert Romanenko leans towards the second version. According to him, the Russians are throwing Zircons at Kyiv to find out if their Patriots will intercept them or not.

"The Russians want to have a trump card means of attack that cannot be repelled. That's why they're testing in Kyiv. For example, to make a demonstrative strike before some negotiations. If Zircon penetrated our air defense, perhaps they would have struck massively at some point. But now they realize that Zircons are ineffective and they have nothing to outdo. They will continue to test, and work out other trajectories, tactical maneuvers. Under the cover of cruise missiles or ballistic missiles, but they will try," he noted in a conversation with RBC-Ukraine.

At the same time, there won't be mass launches of Zircons any time soon.

"Because the Russians simply don't have them in sufficient quantities. They have a dozen, no more. They won't be able to strike massively at ground targets. And the main problems of Zircon are still unresolved, that are accuracy of hitting, guidance, and effectiveness of the warhead," the expert concluded.