The only missile-toting ekranoplan Soviet Russia ever built will go on public display after decades of languishing in disrepair.
The USSR has completed only one Project 903 Lun class ekranoplan, a type of wing-in-ground-effect craft, in 1991. The Soviet Union collapsed soon afterwards. The unique vehicle recently floated out onto the Caspian again for a trip that could be its last one ever.
Designed by the Soviet Union during the final period of the Cold War as a high-speed anti-ship missile craft, the MD-160 – as it is also known – only saw very limited service. It is now going on display at Patriot Park in the city of Derbent which is part of Russia’s semi-autonomous republic of Dagestan.
The ekranoplan arrived in Derbent after a 14-hour journey south from Russian Navy base in Kaspiysk, also situated in Dagestan, where it has been languishing in disrepair since it was withdrawn from service in the late 1990s.
It took a full day to prepare the craft, which is non-operational at present, for being towed to its new location.
Construction of the MD-160, which has a maximum take off weight of 837,757 pounds, began in 1986 at the Krasnoye Sormovo plant along the Volga River in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. The vehicle is powered by eight Kuznetsov NK-87 turbofan engines, each with a maximum thrust rating of 28,600 pounds, mounted in two banks of four engines on each side of the forward fuselage.
Ekranoplans are unique vehicles, distinct from aircraft, helicopters, hoverfoils or hovercraft. They are designed to fly by taking advantage of the increased lift and decreased drag an aircraft’s wings experience when close to the earth during flight. An ordinary plane only experiences this ground effect during takeoff and landing, but an ekranoplan exploits it during the entire time of operation. That’s why the MD-160 and other types of ekranoplan operate over water. Flying in this manner over the ground would be unlikely to work in any area more crowded than the Great Plains and even then, telephone poles and electrical wiring would pose a major problem.
Wing-in-ground-effect vehicles are generally flying boats which allow for a very efficiently sustained high-speed flight. They are easier and safer to operate them over water, but in reality any large flat space, including ice, will technically provide a suitable operating environment.
Work on MD-160 was finished in 1991, just in time for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was then transferred to the Capsian Sea Flotilla, part of the new Russian Navy. Even back during Soviet times, the Flotilla was tasked with testing and evaluating ekranoplans, particularly the massive Korabl Maket, or “Ship Prototype,” better known as the Caspian Sea Monster, introduced in 1966. It operated in the region until being destroyed in an accident in 1980.
While the Capsian Sea Monster was largely a research and development platform, the Lun class, which was originally planned to comprise eight vehicles in total, was meant to be a combat craft. It featured six P-270 Moskit anti-ship missiles, also known as theSS-N-22 Sunburn, mounted in pairs on top of the central fuselage. The tail sported a large surface search radar. Ekranoplans were intended to wage high-speed attacks on hostile surface warships, using their low-level flight profile and speed to boost their chance of survival.
Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, the future of the Lun class was unsure. While a second vehicle was under construction, the Soviets decided to build it as an unarmed missile resupply variant to support MD-160. After the Soviet nuclear submarine K-278 Komsomolets sank in 1989, engineers proposed to change its configuration to serve search and rescue operations, as well as a mobile hospital platform, dubbed Spasatel, or “Rescuer.”
Russia revisited the idea of completing Spasatel in 2017, focusing on operations in the increasingly strategic Arctic region, but bothing to this end appears to have happened so far. Back in 2018, there were also reports that the Russian military might be looking at building missile-armed ekranoplans again, but don’t know of any clear developments in this regard since then.
Regardless of Russia’s future plans regarding ekranoplans, the only example of a Lun class ekroplan appears to have taken its last trip to be better preserved as an interesting piece of history. And who knows, maybe as a piece of the future too.