By: Warren Gray

Copyright © 2022

“Speed. O, jest unseen, inscrutable, invisible…

O excellent device! Was there ever heard a better?”

— William Shakespeare, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 1593.

On Friday, April 1, 2022, a young, Ukrainian, air defense soldier on the ground in the embattled, separatist, Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine took careful aim at a dreaded, heavily armed, and very deadly, dark-gray, Russian Mi-28N Havoc-B attack helicopter (See my Gunpowder Magazine article on the “Night Hunter: The Mi-28NHavoc-B Gunship” from May 10, 2021). Thew soldier fired his Irish-manufactured (actually, southeastern Belfast, Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom), British-supplied, Thales Air Defense (formerly Shorts Missile Systems) shoulder-fired, Starstreak missile system at the inbound, Russian gunship.

In service with the British armed forces since 1997, this amazing weapon is the fastest, man-portable, air defense missile system in the world, reaching an astounding speed of Mach 3.5 to Mach 4 (about 2,500 to 2,800 miles per hour) in just a few seconds! There’s nothing ordinary or conventional about the Starstreak. Unlike other shoulder-fired, antiaircraft missiles, it’s not a heat-seeking, “fire-and-forget” design. Instead, it is laser-guided: Two separate, modulated, low-energy, laser beams create a two-dimensional, wide-beam, laser grid matrix upon the target aircraft.

The 31-pound missile itself (four feet, seven inches long) is stored in a sealed launch tube. When fired, a small, first stage, “blip” rocket motor ejects the missile from the tube. This initial stage burns out before leaving the end of the tube, to protect the operator from flames and backblast. Then, just 13 feet from the end of the launch tube (considered a safe distance), the longer, sustainer stage ignites, rapidly accelerating the missile to Mach 3.5 to Mach 4, or about .75 miles per second! This stage burns for about two to three miles, reaching maximum velocity.

Once the sustainer stage drops away, the triple dart submunitions, known as “hittiles,” are released. Each of these three tungsten-alloy, penetrator darts is 15.6 inches long, only .87-inch in diameter, and weighs two pounds, with a one-pound, high-explosive warhead of PBX-98, two and a half times as powerful as a standard, M67 hand grenade. Instead of homing in on reflected, laser energy, the unpowered darts each have a sensor at the back. The sensor constantly receives data from the laser grid matrix, keeping the darts centered within the matrix and flying in formation about five feet apart, steered by their movable, front wings.

The Starstreak has a maximum range of 4.35 miles, but that significant distance is easily covered in less than six seconds. After the sustainer-stage burnout, the three streamlined darts fly using kinetic energy alone. With no smoke trail, they are virtually invisible to the crew of the target aircraft for the last mile or two, so they strike without warning, at hypersonic velocity. Upon impact, a delayed-action fuse ensures that the explosive darts detonate inside the enemy aircraft, and a hard, tungsten-housing fragments, maximizing internal damage. The kinetic energy alone is comparable to a Bofors 40mm cannon projectile, with the three darts imparting a shotgun-like effect.

Thales Air Defence states that, “The unique characteristics and the exceptional speed of Starstreak pose a significant challenge to adversary pilots, who are unlikely to have sufficient time to react once an engagement begins. This, in conjunction with the inability to jam the missile, has a huge impact upon the human consciousness of pilots, and a highly-disruptive effect on mission planning and execution.”

The laser-guided Starstreak is not only twice as fast as most heat-seeking missiles, but it cannot be jammed or defeated by infrared flares or other countermeasures. Plus, the lasers are very low-energy and cannot be detected by most laser warning receivers aboard aircrafts. The missile itself is so blindingly fast that the enemy aircrew has very little time to react, if they can see it coming at all. Although it was designed as an antiaircraft missile, the Starstreak also has been tested successfully against an armored personnel carrier on the ground, with the high-velocity darts easily penetrating light armor.

There are several Starstreak variants: the standard, shoulder-fired model; a Lightweight, Multiple Launcher (LML) model with three missiles on a fixed pedestal; a self-propelled (SP) version for mounting on armored, air defense vehicles (this is the most-common variant); and a RapidRanger vehicle-mounted version for export. An air-to-air Starstreak (ATASK) for armed helicopters, also known as “Helstreak” (as in “Helicopter-launched Starstreak”), was developed in 1998, but never entered service.

Starstreak variants are currently on active duty with the United Kingdom, Indonesia, South Africa, Thailand, and Ukraine. The Ukrainians are receiving older – but still very deadly – versions, while the British Army is equipped with the upgraded, Starstreak II A5 (fifth generation). More than 7,000 Starstreak missiles have been constructed over the past quarter-century.

These sophisticated weapons require two to three weeks of intensive training for air defense troops on the ground. Recently British forces have been training Ukrainian soldiers in Poland, where, according to British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, a former captain in the Scots Guards regiment, the United Kingdom is “doing more than pretty much anyone else” to aid and arm Ukrainian military forces.

The Russian forces invading peaceful Ukraine have recently exhibited increasingly desperate tactics as their advances have been repeatedly stalled or even countered by Ukrainian troops. The introduction of the hypersonic, Starstreak missile system into the battlefield situation certainly will have a significant, psychological effect upon the Russian Aerospace Forces, especially their attack helicopter crews. At this point in the unprovoked war, any tactical advantage, tipping the scales in Ukraine’s favor, is a welcome addition, indeed; and the ultra-fast Starstreak is sure to strike fear into the hearts of the belligerent, Russian invaders.

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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including Eastern Europe) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: