In contrast with the NATO nations, the Soviet Union gave high priority to air defence from the start of the Cold War, and in particular to missiles, and proceeded to follow a coherent development plan throughout. In the ground forces, area coverage was provided by SAM brigades, whose operations were co-ordinated with those of the tactical air army, while at division and regimental level SAMs and anti-aircraft guns provided point defence. These were tied together by an efficient target-acquisition and early-warning system, whose tasks were to provide the air-defence units with target data and other units with warning of incoming attacks. All units were encouraged to use shoulder-launched short-range missiles, machine-guns and rifles against hostile aircraft.
The first missile, the SA-1 (NATO = ‘Guild’), which was also the world’s first air-defence missile to be deployed on a significant scale, entered service in 1954 and was intended for homeland defence, while the first mobile missile system for the field army, the SA-2 (‘Guideline’), entered service in 1957. The SA-2 missile was mounted on a wheeled transporter–erector, launched vertically, and guided by radar, and its capabilities were amply demonstrated on 1 May 1960 when an SA-2 missile hit the US spy plane piloted by Gary Powers, thus not only provoking the ‘U-2 Incident’ but also effectively ending the USA’s ability to overfly the USSR with U-2s. The missile was widely exported and was constantly updated, particularly as a result of operational experience by its export customers, including North Vietnam, Egypt and Syria.
Next came the SA-4 (‘Ganef’) system, which entered full service in 1967 and consisted of two missiles mounted on a tracked carrier. This highly mobile system was designed to accompany advancing forces, each army having a brigade of twenty-seven launchers, which moved in two echelons, one some 10 km behind the front line, the other 15 km further back. The amphibious tracked carrier was specifically designed for the SA-4 system, but was subsequently used for many other systems. The SA-4 remained in service until the early 1990s but, as far as is known, was never used operationally, although a brigade was deployed to Egypt in 1971–2 and another brigade was deployed to Kabul Airport in 1979.
The series of army air-defence missile systems continued with the SA-6 (‘Gainful’), which, like the SA-4, was powered by a ramjet. It entered service in 1970 and complemented the SA-4 in the forward areas, the first echelon being some 5 km behind the forward troops and the second echelon 10 km further back still. The system was designed to combat low-level fighter-bombers and was widely used in the Soviet army; it was also exported to Egypt and Syria. The initial version of the SA-6, with one radar for three launchers, was used to great effect in the 1973 Arab–Israeli war, where it initially caused great problems for the Israeli air force, due, at least in part, to surprise. After suffering losses, however, the Israelis discovered three weaknesses: the missile could be defeated by a combination of chaff and manoeuvre; the engagement radar was vulnerable to attack; and the system could be saturated.
The SA-6 was due to be replaced by the SA-11 (‘Gadfly’), but problems with the new system’s missile led to a stop-gap system being fielded, which was designated SA-6B by NATO, and which combined the proven SA-6 missile with the SA-11 trailer, launcher and radar; it served in limited numbers from 1979 to the mid-1980s
The Soviets had, however, already developed another new divisional-level system, the SA-8 (‘Gecko’), in which each 6 × 6-wheeled, amphibious launch vehicle also had its own engagement radar. After prolonged problems with the missile, this entered service in 1980.
The development of these Soviet missile systems followed a constant path. The early missiles were designed to counter the medium- and high-level threats that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, while the SA-6, SA-8 and SA-11 also countered the low-level threat that started to become important from the 1970s onwards. These systems were deployed at divisional level and above, while at regimental level there were SA-9 (‘Gaskin’) vehicle-mounted missiles and air-defence guns (e.g. the ZSU-23–4 – see below) and at battalion level there was a plethora of shoulder-launched missiles (e.g. the SA-7 ‘Grail’). There was at least one SA-7 launcher in each tank and motor-rifle platoon, while each regiment had a platoon of four quadruple SA-9 launchers and a platoon of four ZSU-23–4 guns. The missile’s infrared seeker was reported to be fairly susceptible to deception, and the West developed a multitude of countermeasures, including baffles over helicopter engine exhausts, flares with varying heat intensities, and infra-red decoy pods.
One of the notable achievements of the Soviet system was that it managed to develop a series of missiles and associated radars which could be deployed both on land and at sea, only the launchers being different. Another strength was that most of them were very simple to use.
SA-6 Gainful Tracked Mobile Surface-to-Air Missile System
The surface-to-air system known as the SA-6 Gainful by NATO was a highly mobile and flexible system that was credited with destroying more than one-third of the Israeli aircraft lost in the 1973 Arab–Israeli War. This was a medium-range anti-aircraft weapon designed to deal with attacking aircraft at ranges of between 5 and 30km. It was supported by the SA-4 Ganef covering greater ranges up to 70km and the SA-7 Grail man-portable or vehicle-mounted launcher and the ZSU-23-34 dealing with short distance and close-up aircraft.
The SA-6 Gainful was first seen in Red Square on 7 November 1967. It consisted of three rockets mounted on a fully rotating turntable carried on a tracked chassis derived from the PT-76 amphibious tank. The SA-6 itself was a single-stage missile some 6.2 metres long launched by a solid-fuel rocket engine and propelled at a cruise speed of Mach 2.5 by a liquid fuel ram jet. The warhead was of the high explosive fragmentation type. The command guidance system was in the centre section and there were receiver antennae and beacons on the tips of the two rear fins.
An SA-6 battery unit comprised five vehicles, three with the triple launchers, a loading vehicle and a Straight Flush radar vehicle. Each Soviet Army deployed five batteries, with three positioned 5km behind the front and the other two covering the 10km gaps further back. Various radars, most notably the Long Track, provided early warning and preliminary target data. In Egyptian service SA-6 units were supported by the van-mounted Flat Face radar, but the key guidance radar was the Straight Flush.
The Straight Flush fire control vehicle was used in conjunction with the Gainful and utilised a similar chassis to that of the missile carrier. The target tracking radar and the target acquisition radar were both mounted on a pedestal in the centre of the vehicle, with the tracking radar on top. When deployed, the Straight Flush would be supplied with target information from long-range radars such as Flat Face and from its acquisition radar after locating a target and identifying it as friend or foe; this data was then passed to the tracking radar to lock the system onto the enemy aircraft so the missile could be launched. The Gainful was supplied by the Soviet Union to other Warsaw Pact armies and to the Middle East, including Egypt and Syria.