There are many different types of Air defense systems that are all designed do deal with different kinds of threats at different ranges and height. This lesson will give you a basic overview of the main types of modern Surface to Air anti-aircraft Systems in use today, how they are used and what are their working principals. (From smallest to largest)

How Air defense works

When you imagine an air defense system, let’s say the S-300 vs a F-16 most will imagine one system firing a single missile at the f-16 and the jet trying to shake it off etc., that’s not at all how this works, in a realistic sense modern air defense systems are typically combined with other various different types of missile sites , multiple radars ,command and control posts and nearby air bases creating a strong mix of defense layers. The combination of these elements is called IADS (integrated air defense system), this combination of systems makes an IADS very deadly. In normal circumstances numerous SAMs turn of their radars and stay hidden while other long range radars far away can detect air craft approaching and give the data to hidden SAMs which together with long range SAMs fire at the aircraft and downing it before the aircraft sees the SAM. This is why the best way to beat a SAM system is to avoid it all together, but unfortunately most important military and nonmilitary areas are under protection of SAMs.

(How do you tell the difference between friend or foe? By using [IFF identification system|] or similar systems depending on the country, There is also a secondary radar that “paints” the target aircraft with an interrogation code. If the aircraft is friendly, it will have a transponder on board which will reply with a “I am friendly” code. Point to note there have been instances where friendly aircraft were shot down)

How Surface to air guns work

Modern Surface to air guns/Cannons make use of laser sights, digital fire control and other high tech equipment to locate an air craft and fire large caliber projectiles towards a point where the air craft is calculated to reach keeping in mind the aircraft speed and the projectiles speed. These systems are very effective against low fling aircraft.

How Surface to air missiles work

Most people have the common miss conception that SAM missiles burn their engines all the way in flight before hitting its target and also if it misses a target it turns around and re-engages, but this is not the case. Surface to air missiles typically only have enough fuel to burn their engines only a few seconds, this burn is to get the missile up to speed. Once a missile runs out of fuel it glides towards it target while gradually slowing down due to the air friction of the atmosphere. So, to evade one an aircraft typically moves downward and changes course where the atmosphere is thicker which causes the missile to lose more kinetic energy hence slow down losing maneuverability becoming less accurate. Basically, further it travels less the chances of a hit regardless modern SAMs are very deadly especially at close range. When they get close enough depending on the missile type (A conventional explosive blast warhead, fragmentation warhead, or continuous rod warhead or a combination of any of those three warhead types) the missile disables or destroys the intended target.

Types of Surface to Air weapon systems

Towed and static anti-aircraft guns

Proper towed and static anti-aircraft guns are basically large caliber automatic cannons that are designed to be fired at low flying aircraft (Basically aircraft flying at low altitude) and shoot them down. Modern towed and static anti-aircraft guns are fully automated and come equipped with laser finders, digital fire control systems, radar guidance, integrated power supply’s, auto reloading etc. all things that help it become a serious threat to low flying aircraft especially slow speed jets or helicopters.

These same systems are also be used for defensive purposes for intercepting incoming missiles, artillery and even mortar shells with use of sensitive special detection equipment connected with the system. Incoming projectiles are intercepted with special ammo which explodes at a pre-calculated point in front of the target.

There are many different kinds and sizes of Towed and static anti-aircraft guns which use different number of barrels and caliber ammo like the Swiss GDF-005 has 2 35mm twin cannons, however it is important to note that the term (Towed and static anti-aircraft guns) can also include DshK or 50cal Browning machine guns often put on tanks as anti-aircraft machine guns but those are basically an extra addition to fire power because they are useless against aircraft of any type unless it’s very slow and close (They cannot be classified as AA)

Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns

A Self-propelled anti-aircraft gun is basically an anti-aircraft vehicle better known as (SPAAG) or self-propelled air defense system (SPAD). Such systems are a mobile vehicle with dedicated anti-aircraft capability (AA machine guns, auto cannons or missiles). They are meant to serve as a quick deployment secondary line of defense against enemy aircraft that get too close at lower altitudes.

Modern SPAAGs are armored vehicles which often come equipped a with a fast-rotating turret fitted with large caliber auto cannons and short-range anti-aircraft guided missiles on its sides. The auto cannons are typically guided by radar data, TV tracking cameras, infra-red tracking cameras, laser rangefinder etc. which make them especially deadly and effective against low flying aircraft. Aside from the guns, most modern SPAAGs also come equipped with short range surface to air guided missiles which as extremely deadly for aircraft at close range.

Popular examples of SPAAGs are the German Gepard, Russian Tunguska-M1, Chinese Type 95 and the British Marksman.


MANPADs are short for (Man portable air-defense systems) are shoulder launched short range surface to air guided missiles that are a big threat to low flying aircraft, especially helicopters. So basically, they SAMs that can be operated by one man and can shoot down military helicopters and aircraft with its range which is typically around 6-7 km.

Modern MANPADs feature missiles typically guided by infrared homing technology combined with multiple detectors that help them differ between flares and the aircraft making them extremely effective against helicopters. The reason of this effectiveness is the short range itself, since missiles still have high kinetic energy at after flying a little, they have good maneuverability increasing the chances of a kill.

What makes MANPADs interesting is that modern MANPADs can shoot down jet aircraft as well despite being only operated by one man. As seen many times in Syria manpads are also highly effective against low flying enemy jets, typically most aircraft in and under 4++ generation are vulnerable to MANPADs with in each range. This makes them a cheap but effective and highly mobile air defense tool for many militaries. (MANPADs are sometimes also mounted on vehicles typically armored vehicles but can also be mounted on civilian vehicles making them a weapon of choice for many small military organizations like Hezbollah.

Short range SAMs

Short range SAMs are specialized systems meant to be deployed at highly important military installations or highly strategic valued areas. Although their range is short, they are extremely effective with in their sphere of range that are typically designed to deal with medium to low altitude aircraft, incoming cruise missiles or even small rockets in some cases.

Short range SAMs are a specialized class of SAM systems whose range comes between medium to ground level air defense (Around 10-15 km). Their high effectiveness is due to small range, which means the missiles must travel less distance and lose less kinetic energy. This results in them heaving high maneuverability and increased kill probability. Another advantage of these systems is that they can typically be fitted on most big enough armored vehicles which have designated space for installation.

Medium range SAMs

Medium range SAMs are specialized surface to air missile defense systems whose main objective is eliminating most threats in the air by intercept incoming missiles and downing aircraft within its designated range by use of high-tech guided missiles. Medium range SAMs are a vague class of SAM systems whose range comes between long range air defense systems and MANPADs (Around 50km). However, these types of missile systems are more deadly, this is because they must travel less distance resulting in them losing less kinetic energy and more air maneuverability. This increases chances of a direct hit.

Medium range SAMs relate to many other external systems (Multiple radar systems, control centers etc.), that increases its effectiveness in an area. A few examples of Medium range SAMs are the Israeli Iron dome, US Rapier, Russian 2K12 Kub and the Italian Spada 2000. (Many of these Systems are not necessarily fixed at one point, most can be fitted on mobile plat forms). This means their chances of achieving a kill lowers the further they move.

Long range SAMs

Similar to Medium range SAMs, Long range air defense systems are specialized surface to air missile defense systems whose main objective is eliminating most threats in the air by intercept incoming missiles and downing aircraft at long ranges (Typically over 100 km)by use of high tech guided missiles . The tech used for guiding the missile varies system to system depending on how it is designed. The most Iconic air defense systems, the US Patriot or the Russian S-300 fall under this category as both have long operational ranges. However long range SAMs have a flaw, because the missiles must travel long ranges, they lose a lot of kinetic energy making it slower and harder to maneuver.

Just like Medium range SAMs, Long range SAMs are also connected with many other external systems (Multiple radar systems, control centers etc.), that increases its effectiveness in an area. Modern examples are

* US MIM-104F Patriot
* Russian S-400
* Chinese HQ-9

Laser weapons

Some countries like the US are currently developing laser weapons designed to take down UAVs by use of infrared beam from a solid-state laser array which can be tuned to high output to destroy the target or low output to warn or cripple the sensors of a target.



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