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Ukrainian troops have completed training in the fastest anti-aircraft missile in the world that will present a severe threat to Russian aircraft, the British defence secretary has confirmed.
Ben Wallace said the advanced Starstreak weapon that travels at more than 5,000kph and is made in Belfast had been deployed into the war zone for the first time and would be used imminently against the Russian offensive.
Britain’s defence industry is benefitting significantly from the Ukraine conflict with shares soaring among companies supplying missiles and other hardware.
“One of the biggest challenges is that the more you go up in sophistication of weapons systems, the more training you require to use them,” he told The Mail on Sunday. With Britain providing more than 10,000 anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, it was “doing more than pretty much anyone else” to help Ukraine's military, he said.
Ukraine’s troops are understood to have been trained in the more challenging Starstreak system via remote online learning and potentially by British instructors operating in Eastern Europe.
Unlike other surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), Starstreak, built in Northern Ireland, follows a laser beam-guidance system rather than heat-seeking that can be deterred by magnesium flares.
It is incredibly fast, reaching a maximum velocity of three times the speed of sound, or Mach 4, much faster than the top speed of a Stinger anti-aircraft missile which can travel at Mach 2.5. It also has a range of seven kilometres, with each missile carrying three tungsten-alloy darts each weighing 450g.
Ukraine’s medium range SAM threat has largely forced Russian jets to fly low and fast, which will make them vulnerable to the shoulder-launched weapon. Starstreak will prove particularly deadly for helicopters, giving pilots little time to react.
The weapon that is proving decisive in hitting Russian armour is the British-made Next Generation Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW). A Ukraine army official has said up to 40 per cent of all Russian tanks destroyed in the conflict have been hit by NLAWs.
Defence minister James Heappey argued in the Commons on Monday that small detachments of Ukrainian troops armed with NLAWs had proven highly capable at attacking the large, slow-moving Russian armoured formations.
“We have seen on the footage of Ukrainians, interrupting activities of fast armoured columns, that small bands of determined people with the right missile technology are far more lethal than any opposing armoured force might prove to be,” he said.
Britain has sent more than 4,000 of the advanced but easy-to-use missiles, which at £20,000 ($26,170) each are significantly cheaper than US-made Javelin, estimated at £156,000.
The NLAWs and Starstreaks are both made at the former Shorts factory in Belfast that is now owned by Thales, a French company.
With the company advertising 22 jobs, including one for a “missile architect”, it is clearly experiencing a post-pandemic boon in which share prices for some defence companies have increased by up to 72 per cent in a day. Thales’s share price has risen by 42 per cent in the past month.
With the German defence budget leaping to $100 billion a year, it is expected that more military items will be bought from British companies, including the Eurofighter Typhoon and meteor air-to-air missiles, which are made in Bolton, Greater Manchester.