It was a unique naval weapon, the only time anyone has combined a sea skimming Ground Effect aircraft with carrier-killing supersonic missiles. Impressively fast and heavily armed, the gigantic Lun Class wings in ground effect (WIG) plane is a classic super weapon of the Cold War. It was one of the most distinctive, and least understood, naval weapons in Russian Navy’s line up. In the 1980s the Soviet Union planned to built eight to take on U.S. Navy warships. But like so many ambitious Russian projects it was a victim of the end of the Cold War.
Now the only one completed has made its final voyage, from Kaspiysk naval base to a park where it will become a museum. The July 31 journey, towed on barge, took 14 hours. This is in sharp contrast to the incredible speeds it was capable of under its own power.
WIG craft, known as Ekranoplans in Russia, use an aerodynamic phenomenon known as ground effect. This is a cushion of air which forms between the wing and the ground during low-altitude flight. This greatly reduces drag, allowing the WIG to carry heavy loads over long distances, especially over water. The result is like a flying boat which flies very low and very fast.
The Lun class WIG was built in 1987 and entered service in 1989. NATO were watching closely and gave the vessel the reporting name Utka Class. The project was expensive and only the first boat (the Russian Navy considered them boats not planes) was completed. A second was nearly completed.
Its ‘Moskit’ supersonic missiles, known to NATO as the SS-N-22 Sunburn, made the Lun a formidable adversary. It was larger and faster than the Harpoon missile in service with the U.S. Navy. Flying at just 16-32 feet above the surface the plane would expect to detect a ship sized target at about 22 miles. For Moskit this would be almost point-blank range, giving the target minimal time to react.
But it was expected, by U.S. Intelligence at least, that several would operate together. One would go ahead, providing final target data to others which would remain behind the NATO warship’s radar horizon. The Moskit missiles had a range of about 60 miles and could be fired using the forward Ekranoplan’s target data. A three-ship formation could unleash 18 missiles at a target simultaneously, each one closing at 3 times the speed of sound (known as Mach 3).
NATO considered the type a coastal defense asset, fulfilling the role similar to missile boats. But able to cover a much larger area and react more quickly to new threats. In the Russian Navy press release however it points to an anti-carrier role. It suggests that the Lun could use its high speed and stealth (due to its low altitude) to get close enough to launch its missiles.
Only Russia ever tried to build such a vehicle. There have been recurring reports of finishing the second Lun airframe as a search and rescue platform. Or that production will resume, mainly for use mainly in the Arctic. This doesn’t seem likely due to the cost involved.
Many other WIG exist, but they are all passenger carrying or experimental. The only Navy known to use them today is Iran, but these single-seat craft are no comparison to the Lun.
The Lun will be on display at Patriot park in Derbent on the Caspian Sea. It is the final chapter of a unique craft, but it will remain one of the great ‘what if’ questions of Cold War technology which never saw service.