Johannesburg — Russia will test launch one of its most advanced new hypersonic missiles during joint military exercises this month with China and South Africa off the South African coast, a Russian state-run news agency said Friday. A Tsirkon, or Zircon, missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and cruising at speeds up to Mach 9, or about 7,000 miles per hour, will be fired from the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov during the joint naval exercises, according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
TASS quoted “a source close to Russia’s defense industry” as saying a “training launch” of the missile would see it fired from the frigate at a “surface target” more than 310 miles away. TASS said Russian officials had not officially confirmed the plan.
The joint military exercise by the three nations, dubbed “Mosi II,” is scheduled to begin on Feb. 17 and run for 10 days — notably continuing over Feb. 24, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
That timing had already left U.S. officials “concerned” about the looming war games.
On Friday, David Feldmann, spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, declined to comment on the TASS report about a Tsirkon test launch. South African officials also declined to comment on the report.
Many nations, including the U.S., have been working for years to develop hypersonic glide missiles, which can be harder to detect and intercept due to their speed and maneuverability. But Russia and China have outpaced U.S. efforts on the weapons systems thus far. Moscow claimed in March to have used a hypersonic missile in Ukraine. It would have been the first use of the weapon on any battlefield, although U.S. officials never confirmed one was actually used.
In late May, the Russian Defense Ministry was quoted by TASS as saying it had conducted a successful test launch of a Tsirkon missile into the Barents Sea, hitting a target at a range of about 620 miles.
RIA Novosti, another state-owned Russian news agency, quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Jan. 4 as saying that during the training exercises with South Africa and China, “the actions of the crew on the use of hypersonic weapons and long-range cruise missiles in various conditions will be worked out.”
The Desmond & Leah Tutu Foundation, an organization founded by the late South African bishop and campaigner Desmond Tutu, released a statement on Jan. 20 saying the country’s decision to hold a joint exercise with Russia “amounts to South Africa joining the war on Ukraine.”
The statement lambasts the government’s decision to take part as “the final abandonment by the post-apartheid South African government of the country’s hard-won credentials as a moral bastion and force for human rights.”
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) would not comment on the TASS article and referred CBS News to earlier press statements on the exercise. It released a statement later Friday saying journalists would not be permitted to observe the exercise from aboard “any naval elements” — reporting trips typically referred to as “embeds” — but that more information would be provided at a news conference on Feb. 20, during the exercise.