Role of Surface to Air Missiles in Military Warfare


German airstrikes on London during WW-I demonstrated that aircrafts are going to play important role in any battlefield. Owing to the slow speed and lower ceiling of the aircraft initially antiaircraft artillery was considered sufficient to counter air attacks, but with technological advancements in aircrafts, requirement of more potent weapons was soon realized. HS-117 Schmetterling, the first radio guided SAM system was developed by Germans in 1943. Although SAMs were never operationally utilized during WW-II, however; owing to several projects underway during the war resulted in fielding of various systems in 1950s.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam conflict was the first modern war in which guided anti-aircraft missiles seriously challenged highly advanced supersonic jets. In the initial two years a total of 48 USAF jet aircraft were shot down by SAMs which reached the figure of 205 US aircraft lost to these missiles by the end of war. Initial US response to the huge sized SA-2 SAM threat was in the shape of direct attack which proved to be fatal. In these operations, dual cockpit F-100 Super Sabres of US Navy employed very strange and dangerous tactics by initially presenting themselves as bait and then attempt to visually acquire launched SAMs in an attempt to outmaneuver as well as to figure out exact ground location of their sites. They would then try to destroy SAM sites by dive bombing. In only 45 days, the squadron tasked to carry out these operations was left with only one aircraft. However, the introduction of Weasel aircraft carrying ‘Shrike’ and ‘Standard’ Anti-radiation Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) turned the table. F-105, F-4C, and F-4G aircraft were employed in this role. Feint and counter feint followed as each side introduced new tactics to gain upper hand. By the time of Linebacker ii 1972, the Americans had gained critical information about the performance and operations of SA-2 and used these missions to demonstrate the capability of bomber ops in a SAM saturated environment. Their first missions appeared to demonstrate the exact opposite, with the loss of three B-52s and several others damaged in a single mission. Dramatic alterations following this debacle included extensive use of chaffs and EP coupled with SEAD escorts, dramatically changed the score. The North Vietnamese used up almost their entire stock of remaining missiles for the loss of two more B-52s over a series of missions.

A careful study of Vietnam reveals that effectiveness of SAMs was significantly decreased after Americans incorporated Wild Weasel aircrafts as part of their strike packages. The attrition rate continued to decrease as different tactics and ECM techniques were used over the period of war especially towards the end of the conflict. Other factors which contributed towards decreased SAMs effectiveness with the passage of time were some of their inherent limitations. Due to large and heavy size of SAM batteries, their redeployment was difficult and required considerable amount of time. Although Vietnam used the limited mobility of the SA-2 to its best, American reconnaissance aircrafts were still able to give accurate information about their deployment. North Vietnam even attempted Emission control (EMCON) b firing SA-2 salvo against mass raids through acquisition radars data instead of the tracking radars, however; kill probability remained very low. On the other hand, it was also proved that medium and high-level flights in SAM-defended territory are suicidal thus requiring smaller bombers flying at very low level.

Arab Israel War

Arab Israel War of 1973 is in fact known as the only conflict in which an advanced air force was seriously challenged by SAMs. Israel had hugely underestimated Arab SAMs capabilities which included SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and SA-7 around their airfields and along with forward ground troops. On the very first day of war not even a single out of 708 Israeli launched sorties was able to reach the target due to the efficiency of the Egyptian AD umbrella. Israel changed their tactics by hitting SAM sites before going for any others target. The Egyptians also showed high degree of field expediency in protecting their SAM sites. They used fire barrels to attract thermal rockets and smoke screens to throw off television guided rockets. In the face of primitive Arab methods, Western technology was sometimes rendered obsolete. The standard Vietnam War tactic to fly at low levels to avoid detection by radars was also used. In countering this, SA-3 and other surface-to-air missiles had the most efficient TV-guided homing techniques. On 11th October, for example, with the use of TV-guided missiles — upon the primary information from visual observation posts — a SA-3 surface-to-air missile battery downed 6 Israeli F-4 Phantoms. In addition, the Egyptians had also deployed AAAs around their SAM sites to protect them against low flying aircraft. Attrition by AAAs forced Israelis to go high thus exposing them to SAMs. In haste, overnight US ECM gadgetries and ARMs were shipped to Israel and put into use. Israel also used TV guided Mavericks, fragmentation, and cluster bombs against AD sites. Use of chaff and flare had also been extensive. For the first time ever, UAVs were used to generate spurious tracks and divert the SAMs. As per unconfirmed sources, of the total 303 Israeli aircrafts lost, 40 were to SAMs, around a dozen in air combat and remaining to AAAs. In a manner, SAMs can also be credited for higher AAAs score by denying freedom of action at medium and high-altitude forcing Israelis in falling prey to them at low level.

Bekka Valley

The next major conflict to see SAMs used in was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, named “Operation Peace for Galilee”. IAF had learned her lessons from the last war and had spent years in devising tactics against the SAMs. This time attacks were thoroughly planned to keep in view SAMs deployment in the battle area. A wave of 92 aircrafts which included an E-2C, F-16s, F-15s, F-4s as well as Mastiff and scout RPVs were launched to destroy SAM batteries. Self-protection Jammers were judiciously used to deceive tracking radars.

The Mastiff RPVs went in first to cause the Syrian SAMs to turn on their radars. Once the Mastiffs were tracked by Syrian radars, the tracking signals were relayed to another Scout RPV outside of the missiles’ range. The Scout then relayed the signal to E-2C Hawkeye aircraft orbiting the coast. The data gathered was analyzed by the E-2Cs and Boeing 707 aircraft. The SAM crews fired missiles at the drones, the F-15s and F-16s provided air cover while F-4 Phantoms attacked the SAM batteries, destroying them with AGM-88 HARM. The rapid flight time of the missiles minimized the F-4s’ exposure to the SAMs. Well thought out and planned campaign saw 17 of the 19 Syrian SAM batteries annihilated. Reportedly a total of 57 Surface to air missiles were fired by Syrians but not a single kill could have been achieved. Later analysis reveals SAMs failure apart from good IAF employment was also attributed to poor Syrian practices and tactics. As a USAF General remarked “The Syrians deployed SAMs in valleys instead of hill tops just because they didn’t want to dig for latrines”

The Syrian practice of stationing mobile missiles in one place for several months allowed Israeli mini reconnaissance RPVs to determine the exact location of SAMs. Instead of effective camouflaging, they used smoke to hide which made them easier to spot from the air. Thus, they ignored some viable Soviet tactics which emphasize alternate firing positions, defensive ambushes, regular repositioning of mobile SAMs to confuse enemy intel and emplacement of dummy SAM sites as well as decoy transmitters.

Desert Storm 1991

The 1982 Bekka Valley debacle was repeated on a much larger scale in 1991, when US led Coalition air forces annihilated Saddam’s SAM defenses. F-15s and F-16s employed anti-radiation missiles in combination with specialized F-4Gs, EF-111s and EA-6Bs aircraft in SEAD role. Although some radar and IR guided missiles were able to inflict some damage to the coalition forces but the overall attrition rate during 8 weeks of war was not more than 0.0017 A/C per strike. A total of 75 A/Cs were lost out of 100,000 sorties flown, out of which only 44 were result of direct Iraqi action. Once again air power was able to successfully counter the SAM threat very effectively.

The common thread running through the Middle Eastern SAM vs Air Power campaigns is very clear – the use of ageing and often obsolescent SAM and radar technology and the abandonment of the by then mature Soviet doctrine of Sam system mobility, concealment, deception, and mutual support. Most of the fire control and search radars used were by then fully compromised to the West, and highly effective electronic counter measure were available. Another factor was the training and professional expertise of the Ops crew handling the equipment. Due to analogue, complex, and unfriendly man machine interface in Russian systems; high level of intelligence, tight teamwork, discipline, and technical knowledge is a pre-requisite. Smart play was also lacking in intense EW environment coupled with limited number of available electronic protection measures.

Operation Noble Anvil

NATO peace keeping operations against Serbia in 1999 under the code name ‘Operation Noble Anvil’ is yet another example. Serbians operated a mix of obsolescent SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 area defense SAMS which could not inflict high loses on NATO aircraft, with a reported 665 SAM rounds fired for two verified kills. On the other hand, the inability of NATO to inflict decisive attrition upon the SAMs/GBADs resulted in ongoing high operational costs due to the need to keep EA-6 Prowler, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, Tornado ECR and F-16C (all for Hard and Soft kill) airborne during any significant operation. They were also forced to undertake bombing missions from very high altitudes necessitating the use of PGMs. Approximately 8,500 PGMs were expanded costing $1.3 billion, thus inflicting a very high rate of ‘Virtual Attrition’ to NATO.

Despite the ageing fleets of SAMS, Serbians were able to launch them at least successfully in the theater. On the other hand, allied force equipped with latest anti-radiation missiles was unable to destroy the GBADs. A total of 743 AGM-88 HARM were launched with more than 50% against mobile SA-6 batteries, however; they suffered the lowest attrition of just 10%.

While Serbians operated almost similar systems used in 1973, Bekka valley and by Iraq, the reason behind survival of Serbians GBADs was “Hide, Shoot and Scoot”. This was for the first time when effectiveness of passive air defense measures on the air campaign was realized. Serbian had effectively utilized the art of camouflage, deception, and mobility to conceal the location of SAM systems. Lt Col Zoltan, Commander of SA-3 battery which shot down an F-117A and a F-16C (also damaged another F-117A) said “I worked with my crew for weeks in the simulator, driving up proficiency and crew teamwork. During the conflict, I relocated the battery as frequently as possible (10000 miles in 78 days) and exercised strict emission control”. His battery survived and inflicted the single most embarrassing combat loss of US stealth aircraft in history. In fact, the reason of less effectiveness of SAMs was Zoltan’s policy of max 20 sec on air time of tracking radar, which left many missiles unguided after they were launched but this ensured the high survival rate and also resulted in maintaining high deterrence level throughout the conflict. Irrespective of whether the missile was launched or not, whenever fire control radar was put on air, batteries were relocated between 12 already prepared sites. Use of abandoned Mig-21 radars as decoy transmitters and positioning of decommissioned SA-2 fire control radars at prominent locations helped in evading 23 ARM launches.

NATO Invasion of Libya 2011

Libya’s air defense system relied on Soviet and Russian systems, mostly 20-30 years old and at least two generations behind current SAM technology. Defenses were reportedly focused on Libya’s seacoast, which also covers the capital, Tripoli; Benghazi; and Libya’s major oil ports. NATO primarily utilized Rafale, Typhoons, F-16C and Tornado ECR aircraft for air defense suppression and destruction. In addition, Tomahawk cruise missiles and standoff weapons in the form of AASM, Enhanced Paveway 2 and Storm Shadow by Rafale, Eurofighter and Tornado (Storm Shadow only) added a new dimension, giving Air Power the ability to neutralize GBADs while staying out of their launch envelopes unlike the standard SEAD/DEAD mission which primarily relied on anti-radiation /tv /IR / laser guided missiles for destruction of SAMs. Ineffectiveness of SAMs in this conflict once again proved the importance of Hide, Shoot and Scoot strategy when employed within first 72 hours of the campaign, Libyan Air Defense was crippled. A towed decoy like ALE-50, Rafale’s X-Guard (IAF was interested but it is not confirmed if they are procured or not with the Rafale deal) in addition to chaff and flares also contributed in the survival of combat planes. Rafale used one of the world’s best integrated countermeasure suite ‘Spectra’ jointly developed by Thales and MBDA, which enabled them to effectively stay out of known and popup SAMs’ lethal zones with no jammer or escort support. When used for electronic attack, Spectra equipped Rafales practically remained invisible to fire control radars using ‘Active Cancellation’ technology. Assessment of Rafale’s performance in the conflict also helped Indians in taking long awaited decision about selection of Rafales. Currently Rafales neutralize radars and SAMs through PGMs and standoff missiles only.

One worth mentioning event is the longest ever fighter aircraft combat mission flown by USAF F-16C in SEAD/DEAD role of about 13.5 hours. Although they could not engage any target as bulk of Libyan SAM and radars had either been neutralized already or the Libyans could not dare to switch them ON. Worth noting aspect is that SEAD/DEAD may not necessarily be pre-planned but akin to Armed Recce missions, could also be against targets of opportunity.

Saudi-Yemen Conflict (2015 to date)

For more than four years, Yemen has been ravaged by a war between the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognized government backed by a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, thrust millions to the brink of famine and spawned the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis.

The roles of missiles and drones in this conflict have been huge throughout the crises. Considering the technology available, the hit and run tactic used by the Houthis has proved to be more than successful. Shooting down of F-15s, Panavia Tornado, AH-64 Apaches, Wing Long I & II, MQ-9 Predator & CH-4s proves how much SAMs can be effective in today’s arena of modern warfare when employed by making use of first hiding and then shooting and scooting. The Houthis have made best use of SA-6, S-75 Divina, Strela-II, FN-16 and weirdly enough, retrofitting Kub-2K12 with air launched AA-10 Alamo and AA-8 Aaphids and AA-11 Archers.

On the other hand, Saudi Patriots have showed their intermittent performance. Their execution specially against volley of cruise missiles and drone swarms have been poor throughout the crises, attacks on Saudi Aramco Oil refinery, Abha and Jizan airport attacks and attack on Shaybah oil field are the biggest examples. The fact that the Saudis are not in habit of relocating their AD systems owing to their requirements i.e. terminal air defence, had made attacks easy for the Houthis. Other than that, the patriots and MIM-23 Hawk have been successful in defending and repelling attacks on Saudi capital Riyadh and holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as other strategic targets.


Above mentioned events are spread over a span of more than a half a century where mostly the obsolete Russian systems competed against modern jets. Western systems though used on a limited scale in the yester years have done just enough. In present era SAMs both from Eastern & Western block, based upon the lessons from past conflicts, numerous advancements have been made. Their sensors are more jamming resistant with ability to engage small RCS targets including ballistic missiles, PGMs, cruise missiles and drones. LPI (low probability of intercept) feature makes them difficult to be suppressed or destroyed. Being highly mobile makes “hide, shoot & scoot” operations easier, for instance AD systems like Torr, Pantsir S-1 and Spada-2000 etc. can even lock while on move and fire within 7-10 sec after halt. Lastly by virtue of better of multi guidance systems and new techs like ramjet motors, it is very difficult to outmaneuver them.


Post Swift Retort PAF and PA both need to strengthen their Air Defense Capabilities at their own places (PAF should invest in HIMADS while PA should strive to fortify terminal air defenses) while PN should also work in synergy with PAF Air Defense ops since they are the main stake holders in ensuring Pakistan’s Air Defense. Working of all the Air Defense components of the three services in synergy with each other can render the most advance counter measures useless. On our part, we must try to adopt the practices proven during past conflicts and achieve proficiency on our weapon systems. As someone very rightly said that:

“It is not the gun but the man behind it, who really matters”


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