Can British Starstreak Missiles and Old Soviet Air Defenses Help Ukraine Win the Air War? – The majority of combat confirmed aircraft losses over Ukraine appear to have been downed by bazooka-like man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), including the U.S. Stinger or Russian Igla systems.
MANPADS are mostly heat-seeking short-range weapons that are rarely effective beyond 10,000 to 15,000 feet. That makes them more useful against helicopters, and less against modern warplanes which can fly up to 40,000 to 60,000 feet high.
But while MANPADS have indeed downed many helicopters and the odd drone or two over Ukraine, they have also claimed a surprising number of jets.
That’s because both Russia and even more so Ukraine, lack large inventories of precision weapons, so pilots are compelled to dive into range to accurately release unguided bombs and rockets. Both sides’ pilots may also be flying low to spot targets obscured by cloud cover, or out of a perception (right or wrong) that long-range, high-altitude surface-to-air missile systems pose an even greater threat than low-altitude defenses.
While Ukraine’s military retained many Igla and older Strela MANPADS, in 2022 it’s received likely over 5,000 additional MANPADS from the United States, Germany, and other NATO states.
Now the United Kingdom, which has already delivered at least 3,615 NLAW anti-tank missiles, is reportedly moving to deliver much longer-range Javelin missiles—and its own bespoke MANPADS, the ultrafast Thales Starstreak.
Starstreak High-Velocity Missile
Starstreak works quite differently from nearly every other kind of MANPADS. Each missile contains three two-pound tungsten alloy darts that are released once the missile’s two rocket motors burn out to increase the odds of a kill.
After launch, the missile homes in on an aircraft bracketed by two lasers aimed by the operator up to the moment of impact.
Compared to the proven Stinger, Starstreak has a greater peak speed (Mach 4), maximum altitude (16,000 feet), and range (4.35 miles). The laser-targeting systems that mean neither flare and chaff decoys, nor radar jamming protect against the missile. And as it travels nearly a mile per second, it will reach its target within five or six seconds after launch, giving an aircraft too little time to evade or to release weapons.
On the downside, keeping the laser on track of very fast or evasive jets could be difficult. It’s possible Starstreak may require more training than for the operation of Stinger, though some former operators argue basic proficiency can be achieved with just a few hours of training.
Regardless, Starstreak should in theory offer both a moderately improved engagement envelope and a greatly enhanced probability of a kill due to its resilience to standard countermeasures used to protect aircraft. That could amount to a significant improvement, as anecdotal reports suggest that for every successful hit by a MANPADS over Ukraine, many more are launched that miss.
The Starstreak system come in the form of single-shot portable launchers, three-shot launchers mounted on a stand (the Lightweight Multiple Launcher), and various vehicle-mounted configurations, notably on the Stormer armored vehicle. The latter variants incorporate some degree of automated tracking for the targeting laser.
Starstreak has been adopted by the militaries of Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand and of course the United Kingdom. However, it doesn’t seem to have been fired in combat before.
What MANPADS has Ukraine already received?
Ukraine has received at least 2,000 FIM-92 Stinger missiles according to a U.S. official. These have been delivered as follows:
- 300 Stinger systems from Denmark delivered February 27
- 500 Stinger missiles from Germany
- 200 Stinger missiles and 50 launchers sent by The Netherlands
- Hundreds more Stingers from U.S., Estonia and Lithuania
The Stinger uses both infrared and ultraviolet imaging to home in on aircraft while discriminating against decoys. It can accelerate up to Mach 2.5 and reach targets up to 3 miles away at altitudes of up to around 12,500 feet. In the hands of Mujaheddin fighters, it famously was responsible for heavy Soviet aircraft losses over Afghanistan in the 1980s.
More shipment of Stinger Man Portable Air Defence System to Ukraine. This shades Ronald Reagan sending Stinger missiles to Mujahedeen rebels in 1986. pic.twitter.com/hpiD1Xz5Qh
— Defense News Nigeria (@DefenseNigeria) March 11, 2022
However, the MANPADS attributed with the most successes over Ukraine is the Piorun, or Grom-2M, a domestic Polish weapon based on the Soviet Igla missile, though with a larger warhead, more sensitive infrared seeker, and a new motor. The Piorun has a maximum speed just shy of Mach 2 and can engage targets out to 4 miles away and up to 13,000 feet high.
#Ukraine: One of the first glimpses of a PPZR Piorun MANPADS in the hands of Ukrainian forces.
Essentially a very heavily upgraded 9K38 Igla, this Polish system was provided to UA recently and may help explain some of the the recent RuAF losses. pic.twitter.com/uZDtdcMdWr
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 5, 2022
The Piorun is said to be responsible for the downing of at least one Su-25 Frogfoot jet, and several Russian attack helicopters.
Slovakia is also transferring anti-air missiles which are likely (but not confirmed) to be Iglas.
#Ukraine: The National Guard of Ukraine provided information on how the Su-25 was shot down over #Kharkiv on March the 6th, apparently the newly-delivered Polish Piorun MANPADS was used (Including delivered thermal optics for spotting), as well as a Soviet-vintage 9K38 Igla. pic.twitter.com/AInE7ZMhnS
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 11, 2022
Germany has also delivered 2,700 9K32M Strela-2M (SA-7B) MANPADS to Ukraine. But these were not only quite outdated, but arrived in boxes infested with hazardous mold from deep storage, requiring handling by personnel in hazmat suits. Some may no longer be functional.
A first-generation MANPAD, the Strela-2M’s heat seeker can only lock onto jets from behind, and then only if they are flying relatively slowly. It’s more flexible versus helicopters, but remains restricted in effect by susceptibility to decoys and a maximum range of 2.6 miles and ceiling of 7,500 feet.
What about longer-range air defenses?
Despite the successes of MANPADS in Ukraine, there’s evidence Russian warplanes are increasingly resorting to standoff strikes with cruise missiles and imprecise high altitude bombing to avoid the MANPADS threat.
That means Ukraine may need to beef up of its vehicle-borne medium- and high-altitude surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries, which have taken some losses but allegedly remain in majority intact according to the Pentagon.
Therefore, following the collapse of a scheme to transfer Polish MiG-29 jets to Ukraine, Washington is now apparently looking for opportunities to transfer Soviet air defense systems that remain in the inventories of allied states—systems Ukraine’s military already knows how to operate.
Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania in particular have a diverse assortment of such arms. But it’s unclear which states would be willing to donate these capable platforms, especially as even a “free” backfilled replacement could take years to arrive.
Greece has S-300PMU1 (NATO codename SA-20 Gargoyle) and its long-range 48N6E missile (range 93 miles) and 9M96E1 and E2 missiles, with maximum ranges of 25 or 75 miles, but which are more maneuverable to intercept agile fighters. These would be significantly more capable than the S-300PTs and PSs operated by Ukraine—but also require training and familiarization.
Slovakia has the preceding S-300PMU system (SA-10F) which incorporates the 64N6 Big Bird radar and uses a longer-range subvariant of the 5V55-series missiles Ukraine uses in its S-300s.
The medium-range Buk missile system is also effective against high-flying aircraft and operated by Ukraine’s military. Finland has retired Buk-M1 systems in storage it could offer, though any deal would be politically tricky to arrange.
Other systems which can reach further than MANPADS include short-range Tor-M1s (SA-15 Gauntlet) and 9K33 Osa’s (SA-8 Gecko); and medium-range S-125 Pechora’s (SA-3 Goa) and 2K12 Kub (SA-6 Gainful) systems. Ukraine has S-125s and Tors in service, and 2K12s in inventory but not operational.
|Medium-Long Range||Short-to-Medium Range||Short|
NATO in theory could also scrounge up ZSU-23/4, Strela-10 (SA-13) and Strela-1 (SA-9) very short-range mobile anti-air systems, but these would arguably offer little benefit over the MANPADS currently being transferred.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring, and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.