Did Ukraine Really Create a Missile That Can’t Be Shot Down?
- Ukraine is developing a new missile, Bliskavka (“Lightning”).
- The missile is a high speed air to ground missile that reaches up to Mach 3.5.
- An article in Ukraine’s press claims the missile can’t be stopped, an assertion that is not true.
A new missile under development by Ukrainian defense contractor Yuzhnoye is virtually unstoppable, flying so fast it cannot be intercepted by enemy defenses. That’s the claim made in Dnipro Panorama, which says the new Bliskavka (“Lightning”) missile could be used against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. While the missile certainly looks fast–on paper anyway–and could be difficult to shoot down, it’s far from unstoppable.
Ukraine has a long history of producing weapons, stretching back to the days of the Soviet Union. As the country’s undeclared war with Russia drags on, Ukraine is using that expertise to build up its armaments. One result of this is the new Lightning missile.This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.
According to UAWire, Lightning is designed to be carried by the country’s Su-27 Flanker and Su-24M Fencer combat aircraft. The missiles can be fitted with high explosive and armor piercing warheads, and has a top speed of 2000-2500 kilometers (1,242 to 1,553 miles) an hour.
A Su-24M Fencer and two Su-27 Flanker jets of the Ukrainian Air Force. Both aircraft are slated to carry the Lightning missile.GENYA SAVILOVGETTY IMAGES
One odd detail about the missile: it appears to have air intakes on both sides of the missile that suggest it is a ramjet-powered missile. Ramjets “ram” air into the engine combustor, which uses the oxygen in the air as fuel. This allows speeds from Mach 3 to Mach 6 (2,301 to 4,603 miles an hour.) Ramjets are the latest in missile engine technology, allowing for not only speed but throttle control. Lightning’s stated speed of “2000 to 2500 kilometers an hour” is way too slow for a ramjet engine to work.
Aviation Week & Space Technology notes the ramjet “shoulders” (air intakes) and AINOnline mentions the claim that the missile can actually reach Mach 3.5—a number comfortably in the ramjet engine range. Given that ramjet shoulders on a conventionally powered engine would lower a missile’s performance, it seems likely Lightning lives up to its name and is actually a Mach 3.5 missile.
Can Lightning be shot down? A Mach 3.5 missile travels at a speed of 2,685 miles an hour, or 44 miles per minute. Russia’s main long range surface to air missile system, the S-400 “Triumpf”, can engage targets at speeds of up to Mach 15 so a Mach 3.5 missile is theoretically not a problem. But in the real world, there can be complications.
A S-400 surface to air missile battery with radar system.SERGEI MALGAVKOGETTY IMAGES
The real issue is that the Lightning apparently flies low, like a cruise missile. Radar works by line of sight, so the higher an object is the easier it is to detect. Older air-to-surface missiles tended to fly a straight trajectory and were often launched by aircraft flying at thousands of feet. This translated into the ability to detect these missiles fairly far away. Cruise missiles, on the other hand, fly just a few hundred feet off the ground, hugging the earth. A ground-based radar can detect a low-flying cruise missile at ranges of about 26 miles, or less.
In other words, a S-400 missile system would have about 30 seconds to detect and shoot down a Lightning missile. That’s difficult but not impossible. But wait, it gets harder: if the missile is merely passing by it may offer an S-400 even less time to engage before it flies out of range. Furthermore, while the S-400 may be able to detect and shoot down targets up to 250 miles away, it can’t shoot down what it can’t detect, and it could only detect Lightning at 26 miles.
A single S-400 battery could easily defend a 100 mile front against conventional missiles an aircraft, but Russia would need four S-400 batteries to even comprehend defending that same front against the Lightning missile. A single S-400 battery costs $500 million, so Ukraine has quadrupled the expense of protecting Russia from Ukrainian missile attack.
Lightning isn’t “unstoppable”—that’s wishful thinking at best. But Russian air defenses would find the new missile awfully hard to shoot down. Lightning increases the cost and risk of Russian military action, ideally deterring Moscow.
(C)POPULAR MECHANICS 2021