Iraqi Air defense missiles


SA-13 Gopher: This is a mobile, low-altitude, heat-seeking missile system designed in the 1970s to protect Soviet ground forces from close-air support runs by Western jets. SA-13s shot down two U. S. Air Force A-10 Warthogs during the 1991 Gulf War. Keep in mind that the A-10 flies low and slow while hunting ground targets, making it exactly the type of plane the SA-13 is meant to counter. (The SA-13 reportedly hit a total of 27 coalition jets during the Gulf War, downing 14, but besides the A-10s those jets were older, Vietnam War-vintage planes.)


SA-2 Guideline: The SA-2 is famous for downing Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane over Russia in 1960, and it would go on to claim dozens of U.S. planes during the Vietnam War. Although old, Iraqi SA-2s did manage to take out a U.S. Navy F-14A+ and an F-15E Strike Eagle during the 1991 Gulf War.


SA-8 Gecko: Iraq used these systems during the 1991 Gulf War.

Air defense missiles constituted the most significant component of Iraq’s integrated air defense system during its three major conflicts since 1980. Iraq used radar-guided surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) for medium- to high-altitude and area air defense and man-portable infrared-guided SAMs for tactical air defense and to complement its antiaircraft artillery systems. Since the most common tactic to evade radar-guided SAMs involved a high-speed roll and dive to lower altitudes, the integration of guns, missiles, and fighter aircraft into a layered defense in-depth theoretically provided an almost impenetrable barrier to air attack. Aircraft that successfully avoided radar-guided SAMs found themselves flying through a gauntlet of intense antiaircraft fire supplemented by infrared-guided SAMs, the intensity of which increased as the attacking aircraft approached their target. Those that made it past the target pulled up into the sights of waiting fighter aircraft. Fighters escorting the attack aircraft had to penetrate the same gauntlet to engage enemy interceptors.

Although it did not lead to high scores among the defending pilots, it was a system that had inflicted heavy losses on U. S. aircraft over North Vietnam in the 1960s. The United States and its coalition allies learned from that conflict, however, and possessed the electronic warfare equipment and weapons to defeat the system during Operations desert storm and Iraqi Freedom.

Most Iraqi air defense missiles were Soviet-built, with the venerable SA-2 Guideline (the missile and radar designations are those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]) and its supporting Fan Song radar being the oldest and longest-ranged weapon in service. Developed in the 1950s, the SA-2, with a range of 27 nautical miles, had enjoyed great success during the Vietnam War but was at best obsolete by 1990. Although it could engage aircraft operating at altitudes of up to 89,000 feet, its radar was easily defeated, and only a highly trained crew could employ its electro-optical guidance and electronic counter-countermeasures features effectively. Also, its minimum range of 4-5 nautical miles and its minimum altitude of 3,280 feet made it all but useless against low-flying targets. The SA-3 Goa was newer and longer-ranged. Introduced in Soviet service in 1963, the Goa, with a range of 22 nautical miles, used the Flat Face radar for guidance. It had an operational engagement ceiling of 59,000 feet and enjoyed better tactical mobility than the SA-2. The SA-2 and SA-3 were deployed around major Iraqi cities.

Iraq also deployed a wide range of Soviet mobile SAM systems, including the SA-6 Gainful and SA-9 Gaskin. Of these, the Gainful was the best known, having inflicted heavy losses on the Israeli Air Force when first employed during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Mounted on a tracked chassis, the Gainful was a medium-ranged SAM supported by a robust Straight Flush fire-control radar that was difficult to deceive. Introduced into Soviet service in 1970, the SA-6 deployed in four transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) batteries supported by a single fire-control radar. The missile has a maximum range of 13.2 nautical miles and an operational engagement ceiling of 39,000 feet.

The SA-9 Gaskin was a much shorter-ranged SAM mounted on a wheeled vehicle that carried two pairs of ready-to-fire missiles. The Gaskin was infrared-guided (IR), but unlike most IR missiles, it could engage an incoming target provided the aircraft was not obscured coming by the sun. Normally deployed in proximity to the ZSU-23/4 mobile antiaircraft gun, the SA-9 dated from 1966 and had a maximum range of 4.4 nautical miles and a ceiling of 20,000 feet. The SA-9 had little impact on allied air operations in either of the Persian Gulf conflicts.

The newest mobile SAM in the Iraqi inventory was the short-ranged radar-guided SA-8 Gecko. Carried in 6-missile canisters mounted atop a wheeled transporter-erector-launcher-and-radar (TELAR), the SA-8 was employed with Iraqi Army units in the field. Its six-wheeled TELAR was amphibious and was equipped with a frequency agile fire-control radar and alternate electrooptical guidance that made it particularly difficult to defeat electronically. Its normal engagement range was 1.1-5 nautical miles against targets flying between 100 and 16,500 feet. The most common tactics employed against the SA-8 were to use antiradiation missiles against its radar or fly above its engagement envelope.

The remaining SAMs in Iraqi service were man-portable. Of these, the Soviet-built IR-guided SA-7 Grail, SA-14 Gremlin, SA-16 Gimlet, and SA-18 Grouse were the most numerous. The SA-7 was the shortest ranged, reaching out only about 10,000 feet and effective only against slow-moving targets flying away at altitudes below 4,000 feet. The SA-14 was an improvement on the SA-7, providing greater range (3.7 nautical miles) and a limited capability for head-on engagements. The SA-16 incorporated an identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) feature and a more effective IR counter-countermeasures capability. The SA-18 was a simplified and more reliable improvement of the SA-16. The Gimlet and Grouse can engage a target from any aspect; they have a maximum range of 3.1 miles and a ceiling of 15,700 feet. Their performance is comparable to the U. S. FIM-92A Stinger.

The last SAM in Iraqi service was the French-built Roland. The Iraqis used the Roland for airfield defense. The radar-guided Roland had a maximum operational range of 5 nautical miles and an engagement ceiling of 17,100 feet. Its rapid acceleration and high speed made it an ideal air defense weapon. However, in the hands of inexperienced or poorly trained operators, it proved vulnerable to jamming and other electronic countermeasures. Also, the Iraqi missile crews had to operate the system from exposed positions, making them vulnerable to enemy attack, a factor that inhibited the weapon’s effectiveness.

Coalition superiority, in terms of both numbers and technology, and superior tactics all but negated Iraq’s integrated air defense system. Its SAMs achieved only limited success in the few opportunities that the air campaign presented to them. Allied air defense suppression systems, antiradiation missiles, and well-orchestrated electronic countermeasure operations blinded Iraqi radars, destroyed their command and control systems and communications networks, and inflicted heavy losses on SAM batteries. Although Iraq nominally possessed a modern integrated air defense system, its weapons, sensors, and communications networks were outdated, and its operators were poorly trained for war against a well-trained opponent equipped with third- and fourth-generation aircraft and precision-guided weapons.

References Blake, Bernard, ed. Jane’s Weapons Systems, 1988-89 (Jane’s Land-Based Air Defence). London: Jane’s 1988. Cooper, Toni, and Farzad Bishop. Iran-Iraq War in the Air: 1980-1988. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2000. General Accounting Office. Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air War; Report to Congress. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1996. Hallion, Richard P. Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997. Lynch, Kristin. Supporting Air and Space Expeditionary Forces: Lessons from Operation Iraqi Freedom. Washington, DC: RAND Corporation, 2004.


2 thoughts on “Iraqi Air defense missiles

  1. Please use the proper Russian designations for their equipment along with the more familiar NATO designation. For example the SA-8 “Gecko” is actually designated 9K33 “Osa” (9K33M/9K33AKM etc…) and the SA-6 “is the 2K12 “Kub” (the export variant used by Iraq was the 2K12E “Kvadrat”. Also, I do not believe that Iraq had ever received any 9K81/S-300V (SA-12 “Gladiator”) systems; if they had both the Iranians and later the allies would have undoubtedly lost more aircraft than they actually did.


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