Weapons of War: The Five Deadliest Air Defense Missiles

An old threat is becoming even deadlier—and portable.

The use of ground-based missiles to engage planes and defend air space is a relatively recent phenomenon. First explored by Germany in World War II, all the major powers quickly raced to develop them in the postwar period. The first confirmed kill by a surface-to-air missile was in 1959.

The size and scope of surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, which restrict vehicle-mounted SAMs to standing armies, means that their use was restricted to conventional wars. As a result, SAM use has been generally infrequent, with the exception of the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts with conventional forces on both sides.

The rise of man-portable air defenses (MANPADS), shoulder-fired systems capable of engaging low-flying aircraft, has extended their use to guerrillas, terrorists, and other nonstate actors. These highly mobile, concealable missiles have been used to target both military and civilian aircraft, in war and peacetime. The proliferation of MANPADS is on a troubling uptick, as instability in Syria and Libya cause both to lose control of their missile arsenals.

There are two ways we could measure overall air defense missile lethality: by number of aircraft actually shot down, and by estimated effectiveness. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use both. Thanks to advances in electronics, missiles are always getting more effective and can defend against many different air-based threats, so it would be easy to load up the list with the latest and (theoretically) best systems. That, however, would neglect some older missiles that have proven effective in the past.

SA-75 “Dvina” (NATO: SA-2 Guideline)

First mention on this list goes not to the most modern missile, but the longest lived. Designed in 1953, the SA-75 “Dvina” surface-to-air missile has been in continuous operation worldwide for more than fifty years.

Originally a fixed air-defense system to counter fast, high-altitude American bombers, the SA-2 was a mainstay of Voyska PVO, the Soviet Air Defense arm. A long, two-stage radar-guided missile, the SA-2 used the P-12 early warning radar (NATO name: “Spoon Rest”) and the RSN-75 “Fan Song” missile control radar. In 1959 the S-75 “Desna” mobile variant became operational, and an improved version, the S-75M “Volkov” was deployed in 1961. “Volkov” could engage targets from 7 to 43 kilometers to an altitude of 98,000 feet.

Exported by the Soviet Union, the SA-2 Guideline served in the vanguard of socialism from Cuba to Mongolia. The SA-2 participated in the Six-Day War, the Vietnam War, the Yom Kippur War, the Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War, the Yugoslavian Civil War, and the War in Abkhazia. The SA-2 scored the first ever air defense missile kill, shooting down a Taiwanese RB-57D reconnaissance plane over China in 1959. A salvo of three SA-2s brought down CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane over Sverdlovsk, Russia in 1960.

The SA-2 formed the backbone of North Vietnam’s high and medium altitude air defense, where it was known as the “flying telephone pole” among American pilots. North Vietnam reported a staggering 5,800 SA-2 launches which downed a total of 205 American aircraft. In 1965 SA-2s scored one hit per fifteen launches; by 1972, due to American advances in tactics, electronic warfare and defensive systems, the ratio had worsened to one hit per fifty launches.

The SA-2 still serves in twenty countries, often modernized to extend service life. The system’s latest kill is thought to be in 1993, against a Russian Su-27 Flanker in the Abkhazia War. A half-century reign of effectiveness on the modern battlefield is no mean feat.

9K32 Strela (NATO: SA-7 Grail)

The SA-7 Grail is the AK-47 of air defense missiles: cheap, lightweight and prone to falling into the wrong hands. The first generation of Soviet man-portable air defense missiles (MANPADS), the SA-7 is a twenty-one-pound missile contained in a launcher the length and width of a rolled-up movie poster. Supersonic, the SA-7 is capable of a maximum speed of 1,260 miles an hour with a range of 14,750 feet.

The SA-7 was meant to provide air defense against low-flying NATO attack aircraft. It was liberally issued to frontline Soviet Army units: motor rifle (mechanized), air assault, naval infantry and engineer companies were all equipped with an SA-7 firing team. A NATO aircraft flying over a Soviet battalion would cross paths with as many as three SA-7s.

That sort of battlefield saturation was necessary because, like all first generation MANPADS, the SA-7 was relatively primitive. Egyptian troops during the 1969-1970 War of Attrition scored 36 hits out of 99 launches, including possibly the first MANPADS intercept ever of an Israeli A-4 Skyhawk. The missile’s small warhead meant most planes were only damaged, not shot down, and training and aircraft modifications dramatically lowered the missile’s effectiveness during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Like other first generation MANPADS, a major downside of the SA-7 was the infrared guidance system, which needed to lock onto the hot exhaust of an aircraft. The SA-7 was only capable of locking onto the tail of an aircraft as it was departing the battlefield—after it had expended its ordnance. The Afghan mujahedeen fighting Soviet occupation forces during the 1980s disliked the SA-7, claiming it would rather lock onto the sun than the exhaust of a jet or helicopter.