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I was watching a movie a while back. I think it was Behind Enemy Lines. There's a scene where an F-18 is getting chased by a Surface-to-Air missile for what seems like 10 minutes.

This is usually the point where I lose my ability to suspend disbelief and yell out "That's not how they work!"

So stick around to find out how they really do work and what it's like to be on the receiving end of one.

Or - "Who's this guy Sam and why is he making my life miserable?"

Surface-to-Air missiles or SAMs have been around since the late 1950s. They were the bane of U-2s over Russia and Cuba, B-52s over Hanoi and Israeli F-4s in 1973.

They come in many different forms, but there are two basic types: tactical and strategic. There are two basic forms of guidance: heat seeking and radar.

A tactical SAM is meant to travel with troops and protect them from aircraft and helicopters. They range in size from man-portable (SA-7, Stinger) to larger ones that travel on trucks or tracked vehicles (SA-6, SA-8). The smaller missiles are usually heat-seeking while the larger ones tend to use radar.

A quick note - I'm using the NATO designation for the Russian systems here.

A strategic SAM is meant to protect something important, like an airfield or a headquarters. They tend to be larger than their tactical counterparts and they are normally fixed in position. They can be moved, but it takes some time to pack them up and set up in a new location. They tend to be larger and capable of greater range and altitude. The Russian SA-2 and the US Patriot are common examples of this type of missile.

So how do they work? Heat-seekers do just what the name says. They follow the heat from your engines. The hotter the better. The early ones had to chase you from behind but the new ones have better seekers and can get you from the front. Back in the day you could deceive them by dropping flares, but the newer ones are smart enough to know what a flare looks like and ignore it.

The good news is these tend to be small, can't go very far or very high and have relatively small warheads. Even if one hits you, it may not bring you down.

Radar guided missiles come in several different flavors: "beam riders", "active", "semi-active", "command guided" or some combination. To make it simple, they normally have a search radar to find you and some type of tracking radar to guide the missile to you.

They can sometimes be defeated by jamming the radars and by dropping chaff (large clouds of tinfoil strips). Once again, the newer ones are a lot smarter and hence more dangerous.

A hit from one is also much deadlier. These things are about the size of telephone poles and carry something like 500 pounds of warhead wrapped in metal rods designed to shred your plane. In other words, close counts. A near miss will probably take you out.

SA-2 Launcher
So how do we deal with these things? The sites that we know about tend to get attacked early in the game with standoff weapons like cruise missile. A smart enemy, however, knows this and will keep some hidden.

There are also dedicated electronic warfare aircraft like EA-6Bs. These guys carry powerful jammers that can cover a wide area.

We also had F-4G "Wild Weasels" whose primary job was to hunt SAM sites. They carried something called a High Speed Anti-radiation Missile or HARM. Basically a missile with a built-in radar detector that homes in on the SAM site. The B-52 community really liked, no make that loved, Wild Weasels. We always felt a lot safer knowing they were in the area.

A B-52 has some tricks up its sleeve as well. We had some pretty impressive jammers of our own. Plus we had an Electronic Warfare Officer to run them. A fighter pilot, if he's lucky, just has a pod that he turns on and hopes it works.

EWOs are an amazing bunch. They can listen to beeps and squeaks in their headset while looking at a bunch of squiggly lines on a scope and tell you what it is and what it's doing.

"Pilot I've got an SA-2 in search mode"  (He's looking for us)
"Pilot SA-2 is in acquisition mode" (He's found us. ruh roh)
"Pilot I've got missile guidance" (Eeek!)

My actual missile engagements didn't go by the script, however.

The first one was on a daylight mission. I happened to look down and saw a smallish missile streak past trailing white smoke. It was several thousand feet below us. I'm not sure what it was. Nothing had locked on to us. Whatever it was, it obviously couldn't reach our altitude of 40,000 feet so we didn't concern ourselves with it too much.

The next time was a little more interesting.

We were number two in a formation of three bombers attacking, ironically enough, a SAM support facility near Kuwait City. We were up around 40,000 feet, at night, completely blacked out. We were using NVGs to fly formation with all the lights off. Useful things, NVGs.

We were on the bomb run, less than a minute out, when I saw a bright flash from down on the ground. I looked down and saw two lights come up and start accelerating like nothing I'd ever seen before.

"OK, bullets start out fast and slow down. These things started out slow and they're speeding up so they must be......"

"Missile left! Breaking right!"

I roll into 90-120 degrees of bank. With all that wing a B-52 actually turns pretty well up high. The missiles are going mach 3 and won't turn very well. Plus the missile's rocket motor only burns for a short time - it's coasting most of the way. Think of a missile as basically a very fast airplane with very tiny wings. If I can force the missile to turn, it will bleed off kinetic energy.

This high bank angle also has us descending, which also works in our favor. If one of these things proximity fuses next to us, the blast will be going up while we're headed down. You don't want one going off under you.

Several seconds go by.....nothing. I'm thinking if we were going to get hit it would have happened by now. Meanwhile the Radar Navigator is screaming "Get back on target! Get back on target!" Good idea. If we scatter our bombs all over the countryside then the SAMs have done their job even without hitting us.

By now we've turned about 45 degrees off our bomb run. I crank it back the other way. It seems to take forever. Damn this thing's a pig. I get the course indicator centered up literally at the last second.

The #3 aircraft said the missiles kept on going past our altitude. They were probably SA-2s if they could reach that high. My EWO told me all he picked up was one quick sweep of a search radar. They probably took a quick peek to get our position, speed, direction and altitude then shot the missiles at us unguided. A skilled operator can make it work. Especially if they shoot a bunch of them at you.

As terrible as they are, wars sometimes produce funny stories. This one was related to me by another crew:

During the Gulf War, the Wild Weasels all used radio call signs named after beers. You might hear "Coors 62" or "Miller 51" on the radio. When they shot a HARM, they would announce it by calling "Magnum" over the tactical frequency.

The Iraqis were (understandably) scared to death of the Wild Weasels. Not being stupid, they would listen in on our radio frequencies. If they heard "Magnum!" they'd shut their radars off.

Bomber crews aren't stupid either. We knew the Iraqis were eavesdropping on us.

One night an Iraqi SAM site locked on to a B-52. The B-52 driver keyed his mike and yelled "Coors 61 Magnum!"

The radar shut off.

Originally posted to Major Kong on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 06:47 PM PST.

Also republished by Kossack Air Force and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks again for these great diaries. :) /nt (15+ / 0-)




    Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us.
    ~ Jerry Garcia

    by DeadHead on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 06:55:46 PM PST

  •  THX Major Chest-Thumper !!1!!!11! (10+ / 0-)

    For those of us who admire/savor/respect all noble warrior/historians from Xenophon to Saboru Sakai, you may not realize how appreciated and savored your diaries have been.

    Keep 'em coming, PLZ !!!

    We haven't met but you're a great fan of mine

    by Great Cthulhu on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 06:59:11 PM PST

  •  A good friend of mine flew an F-4 Phantom. (25+ / 0-)

    He deployed in Vietnam on September 30, 1965 and flew his first mission that day.  He was listed as MIA on September 30, 1965.  In 1985, they found the crash site and were able to identify his remains and those of his back-seater.  A SAM got them on their first mission.  

    He laid out there in that stinking jungle for twenty years, almost to the day, before he was found.  His family brought him home and he is now in the National Cemetery nearest his home.  

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 07:03:48 PM PST

  •  Tom Selleck shows up at the door with a six-pack (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Seeds, The Marti

    whenever I yell Magnum.  ( Great diary & series Major Kong! )

    "God bless us, every one!" ~ T. Tim

    by jwinIL14 on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 07:17:22 PM PST

  •  One of the best stories of SAMs and air crews (5+ / 0-)

    is Tom Wolfe's short story "The Truest Sport: Jousting With SAM and Charlie" about an F-4 crew flying off a carrier.  I read it in college in the 70's.  My NROTC XO was an Electric A-6 ECMO and he said it was dead-on with a lot of the stuff.  

    Later while I was on active duty, one of the COs of the fighter squadrons on my carrier who had been an ex-Blue Angel said that was one of this favorite stories.  

    Check it out!  Sadly, I think you'll have to buy it or get it from the library.  There used to be a PDF of it online, but it probably got DMCA taken down at some point.  

    A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. -Carl Sagan

    by jo fish on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 08:16:07 PM PST

  •  As always, great job! (6+ / 0-)

    Some of the anti-radiation missiles used by NATO (AGM-88C HARM, for example) sometimes carried a blast warhead designed to shatter into thousands of tungsten cubes. Like the 'continuous-rod' warhead in air-to-air missiles which form a ring of fragments when the explosive detonates, these extremely hard tungsten cubes, with their sharp edges, would form a cloud of shrapnel which would punch holes in vulnerable radar arrays , MT and other structures.

    That can REALLY ruin your day.

  •  Thanks Kong (6+ / 0-)

    Really great story.  The Wild Weasels have got to be some of the craziest guys in the sky.  Baiting SAMs, hoping that they come online long enough to get a lock and then try to blast the site to bits....

    My uncle was a AFPRO program manager on an F-111 radio.  I don't recall the model number, but he claimed it would jam any radio transmission within 50 miles.  I think he was a member of "The Old Crows", it was some sort of SAM countermeasures group.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 10:47:53 PM PST

  •  Many law enforcement agencies (0+ / 0-)

    have a standing policy that an officer is never truly off duty.  Many officers will wear their sidearm at all times as a requirement of the job. Of course, most will carry concealed, but some just continue to wear their regular duty holster.  The man you saw may very well have been an off duty officer.  Regardless, I can almost guarantee he was carrying legally with a permit.

    The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand. - Sun Tzu

    by Otteray Scribe on Sat Dec 29, 2012 at 10:49:45 PM PST

  •  Newer SAM's are a whole 'nuther thing. (8+ / 0-)

    Experiences with the relatively primitive SA-2, and the lopsided outcome of recent air campaigns like Israel's destruction of Syria's Bekaa Valley air defenses in the 1980s or both U.S. air campaigns against Iraq, give a very misleading impression of what these weapons can do. After all, the SA-2 is basically a contemporary of the U.S. Nike-Ajax missile, which was conceived in the late 1940s and initially fielded circa 1954(!?!). The Nike Ajax and SA-2 systems both use the extremely primitive radar command guidance method: one radar tracks the target, a separate radar tracks the launched missile, a computer on the ground determines where the missile should fly to intersect the target, and radio commands are sent to the missile from the computer directing its flight path to that intersection. All three elements are vulnerable to jamming: the target tracking radar, the missile tracking radar, and the command radio link.

    Newer generation SAMs are far more lethal and a lot harder to spoof. The U.S. 'Patriot' missile is insanely fast, like Mach 4+, and extremely difficult to jam due to things like frequency jumping and smart electronics. My understanding is that the Patriot is directed to the general vicinity of the target from ground radar input, and its own on-board radar activates to track the target as it gets close.

    The latest Russian SAMs are also extremely fast, and benefit from more recent electronic advances. An integrate air defense system with interlocking systems covering various altitudes backed up by AA guns can actually be extremely difficult to penetrate without prohibitive losses. This reality has been obscured by the relative ineptitude and antiquated systems employed by the Iraqis.

    •  Even 20 years ago (5+ / 0-)

      We were very much afraid of the Russian SA-10, which is roughly equivalent to the Patriot.

      We called it the "I wish you dead" missile.

      Even the SA-6, which has been around since roughly 1973, is pretty scary. We supposedly could beat one if we did everything right, but I'm glad I never met one.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 06:40:58 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  what are the Russians fielding in Syria now? (0+ / 0-)

      I read the other day that they have "advisors" manning Syrian air defenses. I figure they must be fairly new models.

      All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

      by subtropolis on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 11:39:20 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  The SA-2 is basically a contemporary of the Nike (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      subtropolis
      After all, the SA-2 is basically a contemporary of the U.S. Nike-Ajax missile, which was conceived in the late 1940s and initially fielded circa 1954(!?!). The Nike Ajax and SA-2 systems both use the extremely primitive radar command guidance method: one radar tracks the target, a separate radar tracks the launched missile, a computer on the ground determines where the missile should fly to intersect the target, and radio commands are sent to the missile from the computer directing its flight path to that intersection.
      I was thinking, as I was looking at the picture of the SA-2s, that they looked a hell of a lot like the Nikes that I saw deployed in the late 1950s.
      •  Another consequence of Soviet spying. (3+ / 0-)

        A Douglas Aircraft Co. employee passed along detailed information about the Nike Ajax system to the Soviets circa mid 1950s, and the resulting SA-2 not surprisingly had many operational similarities to the first generation Nike Ajax.

        By that time the next generation Nike Hercules was entering service in the U.S.; this was a much faster and longer ranged missile, and it was operational at missile bases around most large American cities by 1962 or so. (I vividly remember the big 'golf ball dome' of the targeting radar of the Nike base that was about 3 miles from my childhood home). But for reasons mostly of economy, Nike Hercules was tied to the same basic guidance system as the earlier Nike Ajax, and so had major operational limitations. And Nike Hercules was already obsolete within a year or two of deployment, because it had zero ability to engage incoming ICBMs. The entire network of 265 missile bases, with thousands of deployed missiles, many of them equipped with nuclear warheads, built at a cost of billions of dollars, was rapidly decommissioned during the late 1960s to about 1970, due partly to the ravenous manpower demands of the Vietnam war and partly due to its lack of relevance with the rise of ICBM's/SLBM's.

        •  Find the Exact Base Closest to Your Home (0+ / 0-)

          A number of years ago, I had seen a very short article in The Hartford Courant stating that one of the Nike base locations in the Hartford area was being taken down so that the land could be converted to other uses.  The site has been closed for forty years, but its location intrigued me, so I looked up the locations for all of the Nike sites in the Hartford area.  Oddly, they all appeared on Wikipedia, along with a description of the entire Nike system built in the 1950s.  

          So, you can find the closest Nike site to your childhood home just by looking here.  What's doubly interesting is that the Nike-Hercules was almost always equipped with a nuclear warhead, so all of these sites would have contained sufficient warheads for the half-dozen or so missiles based at each launch location.  I mentioned this to my mother recently to learn if she had been aware of the missile base only about  three miles away from my old family home and found out that nobody had ever really talked about anything like this.  The Army certainly seems to have tried to keep a low profile for all of these sites.

          "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

          by PrahaPartizan on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 07:05:41 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Yep. There's actually a book out that lists... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            PrahaPartizan

            all the sites, with detailed directions and what the sites are used for now.

            Most of the bases actually housed at least two rows of launchers, each with 3 to 6 launch rails and each served by an underground magazine with an elevator. Most had 25 to 40 missiles stored on site, the majority of which would be conventionally armed, but a handful would have nuclear warheads to deal with possible incoming formations of Soviet bombers.

            There's another book out (I have it at my office, can't give the reference right now) that discusses U.S. use of nuclear warheads for air defense, with thousands of warheads mounted on various air to air and surface to air missiles deployed all around the country, with lots of debate about the wisdom of this decision. Especially fascinating is the fact that this was no secret, and the Pentagon worked diligently to convince average citizens that having nuclear warheads deployed on Nike Hercules missiles in their own neighborhood was a good thing, for their on protection. By and large people were just fine with this in 1960. This began to change in part after a near disaster at a missile base in New Jersey, when a BOMARC missile complete with its nuclear warhead caught fire and burned to ashes, requiring a very expensive cleanup.

  •  great post, as always. (4+ / 0-)

    something that always just amazes me is how big all these pieces of equipment are, and the resulting energy required to lift them off the ground. seeing them on tv doesn't really give you the full scope of their size. this was really brought home to me, the first time i had occasion to visit NASA's manned space flight center, in huntsville, AL. behind the visitor's center, they have a huge yard, with all kinds of equipment from previous missions, that you can climb on, walk on, etc. one of the items are the shells from a saturn 5 rocket, all three sections. you can stand in front of an opening, and you look like an ant by comparison. the same thing goes for the planes. just ginormous! the first time i saw (an old, surplus unit) a SAM unit, i thought they were telephone poles, with little wings on them.  i would not want to be on the receiving end of one of those things, they didn't look friendly at all.

    btw, if you've never been to the center in huntsville, if you're ever in the area, make the time to go, and take your kids, you'll all have a blast. one of the three SR-71 blackbirds sits right out in front of the entrance to the visitor's center, the single coolest plane i have ever seen. the entry fee is a little steep (like $20-25 bucks), but well worth it, trust me.

    •  cpinva: that's a bargain (0+ / 0-)

      my entry fee for an up-close and personal view of a Blackbird came at the cost of sneaking out of the base hospital on Barksdale ... we hosted one at the '79 open house.

      Leaks like a sieve. Sounds like the end of the world.
      Absolutely beautiful aircraft. Nothing else like it anywhere, ever.

      Unweaponed, but for speed ...

      LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

      by BlackSheep1 on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 11:48:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I got to see an SR-71 fly exactly once (0+ / 0-)

      back in the 1980s.

      I was at Eglin AFB when one landed there with an engine problem.

      When they got the thing fixed he did a couple flybys before departing.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 04:46:40 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  wow. I am green with envy (0+ / 0-)

        I was in the hospital when she came in, and trying to talk my way out of losing a stripe when she left....

        LBJ, Lady Bird, Anne Richards, Barbara Jordan, Sully Sullenberger, Ike, Drew Brees, Molly Ivins --Texas is no Bush league! -7.50,-5.59

        by BlackSheep1 on Fri Jan 04, 2013 at 10:06:23 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  a very good friend of mine flew RA-5C's (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    subtropolis, Simplify

    during vietnam. He said they were always sent in before and after bombing runs to assess the damage. the vietnamese knew this and were always ready for that second reconnaissance run. He said it would seem like christmas with all the lights lighting up down there. he also mentioned that if you could see the SAM, you were ok. It was the ones you didn't see...

    "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein

    by pickandshovel on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 09:47:05 AM PST

  •  USAF Probably Hates Unmanned Bomber Drones (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    happymisanthropy

    Once you take the pilot out of the equation, the Air Force potentially  loses the turf battle.

    There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby

    by bernardpliers on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 09:52:51 AM PST

  •  Fighting for a better Middle East (0+ / 0-)

    Thank you! And thank goodness Israel has Iron Dome

    Love Me, I'm a Liberal!

    by simplesiemon on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 02:22:25 PM PST

  •  Echoing what others have said... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rashaverak, magnetics, BlackSheep1

    you really need to write a book.

    "Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself." - Robert G. Ingersoll

    by Apost8 on Sun Dec 30, 2012 at 03:25:26 PM PST

  •  Frying Chickens in the Barnyard! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    subtropolis
  •  OT but not (0+ / 0-)

    I just came across this:

    Take a seat next to the B-52 heavy bomber’s Radar Navigator

    Video of the interior of a BUFF on a practice strike mission (or whatever it's called) plus big photo of the downstairs section. I noticed the navigator's manual compass hanging from his rack.

    All things in the sky are pure to those who have no telescopes. – Charles Fort

    by subtropolis on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 01:06:31 AM PST

    •  Interesting (0+ / 0-)

      Seeing female crew members on a B-52 is still a little odd for me.

      I certainly don't have a problem with it - they just weren't allowed back in my day.

      If the pilot's good, see, I mean if he's reeeally sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low... oh you oughta see it sometime. It's a sight. A big plane like a '52... varrrooom! Its jet exhaust... frying chickens in the barnyard!

      by Major Kong on Mon Dec 31, 2012 at 04:52:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  One of the friends I made on a B-29 listserve (0+ / 0-)

    named Bud Farrell (RIP) related this story about a mission over Korea at night.  It is from his book.

    Well into our orbiting, John Lamire, the Group E.C.M. man with us, and stashed in the crowded nook behind the upper aft turret, and just behind the amplidyne and dynamotor panel in front of my position, had hollered and then flashed a light to get my attention through the small crescent gap between the fuselage and the panel frame. "HEY FARRELL...WATCH THIS " ... and at about that time it seemed like every scanning searchlight within a 5 mile radius LOCKED on us....CONED us !! "NOW WATCH"...and the lightcone broke up and the beams started scanning again..."NOW WATCH"...and he did whatever he was doing...AGAIN! "GODDAMN IT LAMIRE ... KNOCK IT OFF!" Frenchy was a crazy Cajun from Beaumont Texas, and fearless after more missions than I can imagine. He had been in the 19th when we arrived, was there when we left, and I wouldn't be surprised if he was doing the same thing over Vietnam 15 years later! He wore two pearl handled revolvers in a waist holster a la Ol' Blood and Guts Patton in WW II, and I am certain he was at least as fearless! He was a master of his art but he aged me about 10 years in TWO minutes!
    I always thought this story was a good example of the variety of personalities that found themselves in aircrews back then. (a B-29 carried a crew of 11  in korea i believe).

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