The Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers will not be able to stop new high-speed Russian missiles by the time they enter service.
The new Zircon missile can reportedly travel at five to six times the speed of sound, using a state of the art “scramjet” engine, which takes the oxygen it needs for propulsion from the atmosphere instead of a tank on board.
This makes it smaller, lighter and faster than other engines of its type.
Developed by the Russian military, it could be operational as early as next year, at which point it will likely be fitted to a nuclear-powered Kirov class warship as well as strategic bombers and submarines.
Travelling at a speed that can reach to between 3,800mph to 4,600mph, the missiles will be able to evade the air defence systems of the new 60,000-tonne naval carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are currently under construction.
The Royal Navy’s current Sea Ceptor missile system can only shoot down missiles travelling up to 2,300mph.
It means the two ships, the first of which is not expected to be fully operational before 2020, could be rendered obsolete by this new development in hypersonic warfare despite costing up to £7 billion to build.
The US is also believed be developing hypersonic missiles but they are not thought to be close to production.
Although the Zircon is believed to have a shorter range than some Russian anti-ship weapons at present – around 250 miles – and carries conventional explosives it will have a devastating impact on any ship it strikes.
One senior naval source told the Sunday People: “Hypersonic missiles are virtually unstoppable. The whole idea of the carrier is the ability to project power. But with no method of protecting themselves against missiles like the Zircon the carrier would have to stay out of range, hundreds of miles out at sea.
“It’s planes would be useless and the whole basis of a carrier task force would be redundant.”
A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence told The Independent: “We do not comment on force protection measures but keep threats constantly under review.”
Russia deploying cruise missile threatens Nato, American general says
The fears come as tensions between the West and Russia remain at their highest since the end of the Cold War.
Earlier this month, the first of 800 UK troops were deployed to Estonia as part of a Nato plan to bolster the military strength of member states who share a border with Russia.
Other Nato members are also deploying forces to Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as part of the alliance's Enhanced Forward Presence battalion.