By Aritra Banerjee
It is important for any nation to feel confident that it can defend itself and its borders in difficult times. Knowing that you have the right capability to hand, and, almost as importantly, for others to know that you have it, is a defence in itself. For the British Army, the STARStreak high velocity missile is one of the factors which builds that confidence.
Why is that and why might other nations be interested in this technology? In service with the British Army for over two decades, the STARStreak missile has been updated and upgraded over the years and remains the mainstay of the very short range air defence capability of the UK. It is the fastest missile of its class in the world, highly accurate and resistant to countermeasures, providing the highest level of confidence to operators – something that’s important when threats are bearing down on you at alarming speed.
STARStreak is a short range, man-portable, air-defence system currently manufactured by Thales in the UK, providing close air defence capability against conventional air threats, such as low-flying fixed-wing fighters and late unmasking armoured helicopters. It is used by the British Army in both man-portable and vehicle-mounted battlefield roles.
In service with the British Army’s Royal Artillery, STARStreak multi-mission weapons systems are mounted on the self-propelled STORMER tracked vehicle to support Armoured Brigade Combat Teams. The system is also deployed in a highly agile dismounted role by 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando Brigade in both Shoulder-Launched (SL) and Lightweight Multiple Launcher (LML) configurations. STARStreak first saw active service during the Iraq conflict in 2003 and over the last 19 years has been deployed on multiple other operations by the UK.
The British Army currently uses the fifth generation of the STARStreak missile, incorporating significant improvements from the original design. In addition, the British Army’s systems now carry a mix of both STARStreak and another of Thales’ missiles, the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) which gives additional protection against smaller, slower but highly agile targets, including unmanned air systems, vehicles, helicopters, and Fast Inshore Attack Craft (FIAC).
Beyond the UK, the STARStreak system is also in use with a number of other nations whose requirements have driven further system enhancements. The latest launcher system, the Lightweight Multiple Launcher – Next Generation (LML-NG), provides both a day and night operational capability, as well as the option to be tripod or vehicle mounted, supporting flexibility of deployment. Furthermore, the LML-NG system has two additional ready-to-fire missiles, allowing it to handle saturation air attacks or provide a complimentary surface surveillance capability. The man-portable system is designed to suit a wide range of missions from lightweight rapid reaction roles to air droppable operations.
What makes the STARStreak system so desired by UK forces as well as with other nations is that it possesses a highly unique design which makes it stand out from other high velocity missiles. Required to engage fast, evasive or heavily armoured pop-up targets, all in a short timeframe, the system is required to travel at a high speed. Simultaneously, it has to be small and light enough to be man portable on the battlefield. To achieve all these requirements the system contains three tungsten darts, released from a carrier which is powered by a rocket motor. These darts are accelerated to a speed in excess of Mach 3.0 with low drag, over a significant range.
The system’s laser beam riding guidance ensures high accuracy whilst being almost totally resistant to countermeasures. All of this combines to create the world’s fastest VSHORAD missile, whilst giving the highest level of confidence to the operator. Furthermore, STARStreak poses a significant challenge to adversary pilots, particularly helicopter and ground attack aircraft pilots, as it is so fast they do not have time to react to it. This, in conjunction with the inability to jam it once in flight, has a huge impact on the human consciousness of pilots and consequently the disruptive effect on mission planning is notable.
STARStreak – How It Works
When used in the light or man-portable role the STARStreak missile is transported in a sealed launch tube which is attached to an aiming unit for firing. The operator tracks the target using the aiming unit’s optically stabilised sight. Pre-launch tracking of the target allows the aiming unit to compute the right trajectory to bring the missile together with the target. The operator can indicate wind direction to the unit and, in the case of ground hugging or nearby terrain obstacles, provide super-elevation. When initial tracking is complete, the operator fires the missile by simply pressing a button.
The missile then fires the first-stage rocket motor which ejects the missile from the tube, but burns out completely within the tube to protect the operator. Four metres from the operator, when the missile is a safe distance away, the second stage fires. This rapidly accelerates the missile to its burn out velocity, in excess of Mach 3.0. As the second stage burns out, the three dart sub-munitions are released.
Each dart is made from a tungsten alloy and contains an explosive charge detonated by a delayed-action, impact-activated fuze. Each dart consists of a rotating fore-body with two canard fins attached to a non-rotating rear assembly which has four fins. The rear assembly of each dart also houses the electronics that guide the missile, including a rearwards facing sensor.
The darts do not home in on laser energy reflected from the target. Instead the aiming unit projects two laser beams to the back of the missile, maintaining its position within a two dimensional matrix which the operator’s sight superimposes on the target. The lasers are uniquely modulated and by examining these modulations the sub-munition’s sensor can determine the dart’s location within the matrix. The dart is then steered to keep it in the centre of the matrix by controlling the roll of the fore and aft counter rotating sections with a clutch. The front wings then steer the missile in the appropriate direction.
On impact with the target, a delayed action fuze is triggered, giving time for the projectile to penetrate the target before the explosive warhead detonates. The tungsten housing is designed to fragment inside the target in order to deliver all of the kinetic energy of the high velocity system, internal to the target. It’s not surprising that air forces worldwide consider laser beam riding missiles like STARStreak the most effective form of air defence.
Being precise, the first time, when there are no second chances is what helped decide what was important in the development of the STARStreak capability. The system’s design understands and responds to the challenges that the Air Defender faces and years of experience, feedback, and the innovative application of technology have all come together in this impressive VSHORAD STARStreak system.