A Primer to Air Defence Missile Systems, 1955-2022, by Sloppy Goppy
Guest Post by Sloppy Goppy
In the years following World War II, several major powers devoted substantial effort to development of radar-guided surface to air missile systems. The USSR took particular interest in them in order to effectively defend its entire airspace without the expense and drawbacks of constructing numerous fighter bases, which themselves could be easily targeted. The soviets fielded the first practical surface to air missile system, the s-25 ‘Berkut’, in 1955. It was a series of fixed early warning and fire control radars tied to launchers arrayed in a ring around Moscow to protect the city from nuclear-armed strategic bombers.
The system guided its missile to the target using a radar beam, and was initially only effective against high-altitude non-maneuvering targets (such as bombers) but was steadily upgraded over its 27 year service life.
The S-25 was followed up in 1957 by the S-75 ‘Dvina’ system, whose component parts were mounted on trailers so that the entire system could be driven to any desired site and set up in a few hours. This system would be the first to be fired in anger, downing a Taiwanese RB-57 spy plane over China on October 7th 1959, and famously an American U-2 spy plane over the USSR on may 1st 1960.
The system was supplied in large quantities to North Vietnam by the USSR beginning in 1965 and would shoot down the first of many US Aircraft on July 24th. In response the Americans began to develop the first counter-tactics. Under a project codenamed ‘Wild Weasel’, specifically fitted fighter-bombers made a concerted effort to hunt down and destroy North Vietnamese S-75 units. Texas instruments (yes that one) developed a weapon for this purpose, the AGM-45 shrike could lock onto the S-75’s radar and follow the radar’s own beam back to the source, destroying it with its fragmentation warhead
The North Vietnamese in turn discovered that if they switched off their radars in a timely fashion the shrike would lose lock and fall harmlessly to the ground. This didn’t mean the shrike was useless, forcing the north Vietnamese radar operators to shut down meant they couldn’t guide their own missiles against US aircraft. As such Wild Weasel units were often able to keep the North Vietnamese radars offline long enough for strike aircraft to hit their targets , or for the weasels themselves to get close enough to destroy the s-75 sites with conventional weapons. A challenge and response dynamic ensued as both sides developed new tactics and counter-tactics over the course of the war.
The result of the wild weasel program in Vietnam were mixed, some S-75 sites were destroyed and many strikes formations got through, but the tactics required to work around them came with their own inherent risks. US Aircraft flew very low through valleys to hide from North Vietnamese radars, bringing them within range of all calibers of anti-aircraft guns which would also take a heavy toll. All told the US would lose 9929 aircraft in Vietnam. The loss rate among the Wild Weasel squadron exceeding 50%. North Vietnam’s air defenses remained undefeated.
Through the remainder of the Cold War the Soviet Union invested heavily in its surface to air missile (SAM) system, embracing them as an asymmetrical way to counter US/NATO air superiority in Europe. Creating a panoply of systems to deny all ranges of altitudes to the enemy with long range strategic SAMs and short range mobile ones mounted on vehicles which moved forward with army units providing an air-defence umbrella. During the late cold war NATO planners assessed the survivability of its air power against soviet SAMs to be very low.
The next major leap in technology was the Soviet S-300 system which first became operational in 1978, replacing the old S-25 "‘Berkut’ system around Moscow and phasing out the S-75 and other systems through the 1980s. It was designed to counter the full range of threats from high-altitude bombers to cruise missiles flying at treetop level. where previously radar had to be turned off as a counter to anti-radar missiles such as the AGM-45 Shrike, the S-300 could now simply shoot these down too.
The S-300 has been continuously developed and iterated upon until the present day. The current generation S-300V4 and follow-on S-400 from the apex of a vast range of formidable surface to air missile systems in service with the Russian Aerospace Forces and Ground Forces.
As for counter tactics against the newest generation of SAMs… These are being written as we speak. No one ever encountered these systems in battle until this year in Ukraine. Ukraine inherited several late Soviet-era S-300P series systems, several of these have been destroyed through various means by Russia, but at least some likely remain operational at any given time.
The Russian systems have proven effective at providing an air-defence umbrella above army units extending well beyond the front lines. On February 25th a Russian S-400 battery in Belarus downed a Ukrainian Su-27 over Kiev 150km away, and just recently a s-300V4 battery allegedly downed 2 Ukrainian jets at a range of 217km. The Ukrainians occasionally still fly but suffer heavy losses and achieve little. In an attempt to counter the Russian SAMs, the Americans have supplied Ukraine with AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), the successor to the AGM-45 Shrike, at least some of which have been fired in action by Ukrainian MiG-29s.
So far not a single one has been confirmed to have hit its target, unsurpisingly as even older generation Soviet SAM systems were capable of intercepting them, several have been shot down wreckage recovered.
That’s pretty much the state of play as of the present day. I have reason to believe an operation is currently underway by Russia to eliminate Ukraine’s remaining air defenses which I plan to write about as it happens but the prior knowledge required for a good understanding of that is kind of high and I hope I’ve been making some sense of it.
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Thanks for this. It’s one of the areas I’ve had big questions about throughout this conflict.
Always interesting to see tactics evolve as combat affirms or shreds theories developed in peace time.