9K32 ”Strela-2” sam

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9K32 ”Strela-2” SAM










Ave -2

C:3 B:4


Mach 1.4





Ave -1

C:3 B:5


Mach 1.75








The 9K32 "Strela-2" (Russian 9К32 "стрела-2" - arrow, NATO reporting name SA-7 "Grail") is a man-portable, shoulder-fired, low-altitude surface-to-air missile (SAM) system similar to the US Army REDEYE, with a high explosive warhead and passive infrared homing guidance. The SA-7 was the first generation of Soviet man portable SAMs, its first version entered service in 1968. Although the SA-7 is limited in range, speed, and altitude, it can force enemy pilots to fly above its effective ceiling, causing increased chance of detection by radar and vulnerability to other air defence systems. The SA-7 is a tail-chase missile system and its effectiveness depends on its ability to lock onto the heat source of low-flying fixed and rotary-wing aircraft.

Development History

In the immediate post-WWII period the Soviet air defence doctrine had placed a heavy emphasis on national air defence against nuclear-armed bombers. Numerous long-range, high-altitude SAM systems were developed to counter this threat, but in the meanwhile relatively little development took place in mobile battlefield air defences able to move with army maneuver elements and defend them against low-altitude air attack in a conventional war.

The Korean war showed that the era of conventional war was far from over, and the Soviet Union responded with a 10-year plan that called for several mobile battlefield air defence systems to create a multi-tier system to cover all altitude ranges. The new doctrine listed 5 new requirements:

  • front-level medium to high altitude area defence system 9K8 Krug (NATO designation SA-4 "Ganef")

  • army-level low to medium-range area defence system 3K9 Kub (NATO designation SA-6 "Gainful")

  • division-level low altitude short-range system 9K33 Osa (NATO designation SA-8 "Gecko")

  • regimental-level all-weather radar-guided gun system ZSU-23-4 "Shilka"

  • battalion-level very short range systems Strela-1 (NATO designation SA-9 "Gaskin") and Strela-2 (NATO SA-7 "Grail")

Both Strela-1 and Strela-2 were initially intended to be man-portable systems. However, as the Strela-2 proved to be considerably smaller and lighter system, the specifications of the Strela-1 were changed, calling for a heavier vehicle-mounted missile of higher performance to support the ZSU-23-4 gun systems in the regimental air defence role.

As development began in the Turopov OKB (later changed to Kolomna), the detailed information of the US FIM-43 Redeye became available. While it was by no means a simple reverse-engineered copy, in many ways the Strela design borrowed heavily from the Redeye, with which it was developed simultaneously. Development was protracted and many difficulties were faced in designing a sufficiently small seeker head and rocket. Eventually the designers had to settle for a simpler seeker head than that of the Redeye.

The initial version the 9K32 "Strela-2" (US DoD designation SA-7A, missile round 9M32) finally entered service in 1968, 5 years behind schedule.

The Strela-2 was quickly followed by the slightly improved version "Strela-2M" (US DoD designation SA-7B, missile round 9M32M) in 1970, and then a more radical improvement, the 9K36 "Strela-3" (NATO reporting name SA-14 "Gremlin", missile round 9M36).

There is a naval version of this missile. Its NATO reporting name is SA-N-5.


This is a short history of the SA-7 surface to air missile and its operational history. I will also try to briefly sum up its effectiveness and the impact it had on modern tactics.

Development and performance

It is often claimed that the SA-7 is much like the AA-2 air to air missile a clone of a US developed original, the "Redeye" shoulder launched low altitude surface to air missile. Whether the SA-7 was a transistor for transistor reversed engineered clone of the Redeye or simply broadly based on a captured Redeye is something I can neither confirm nor deny. Side by side both the launcher and especially the SA-7 missile it self certainly look very similar to the Redeye. Whatever its origins however the SA-7 just like the Redeye within NATO quickly became a very important part of the arsenal of the Warsaw Pact countries and other Soviet client states. The weapon was easily portable and could be fired by a single man if necessary although it would usually have been operated by a two man team. It provided even the smallest infantry units with a defense against helicopters, fixed wing piston engined aircraft and even low flying jet fighter bombers.

The SA-7a (9K32M Strela-2) was went into service in 1968, but was soon replaced by the more advanced SA-7b (9K32M Strela-2M) which was to become the primary production model and was produced in the greatest numbers. The SA-7b, differed from the SA-7a by its more potent propellant charge which increase its range and its speed. The SA-7a had a slant range of 3.6 km and an its operational altitude went from a minimum of 20 meters to a maximum of 1500 meters altitude. Its speed was about Mach 1.4. The SA-7b increased the slant range to about 4.2 km and the ceiling to some 2300 meters. The speed of the SA-7b increased to Mach 1.75. Both the SA-7a and SA-7b were limited to a tail-chase and rely upon a fairly crude sensor to lock onto IR emissions from the target aircraft which can be jet or piston engined fixed wing or rotary and were never modified to rely upon other kinds of radiation to increase reliability 1).

The SA-7 was not without its limitations. The infrared seeker head although fitted with a filter to reduce vulnerability against IR decoys was not all that reliable. Because it could only lock on a targets exhausts the operator was left with very little time for the launch procedure when dealing with a fast moving target like a jet. In addition the missile was limited to engaging targets that did not maneuver too much such as hovering helicopters and jet fighter bombers and COIN aircraft on attack runs. The SA-7 was thus primarily deployed in the anticipated path of attacking jet aircraft in order to force them to abandon their attack run and flee to higher altitudes where they were vulnerable to heavier and more sophisticated air defense systems. The SA-7 proved more effective in shooting down helicopters and piston engined COIN aircraft due to their lower speeds.


Combat effectiveness

The SA-7 proved fairly effective against US helicopters in Vietnam until the US crews began to vent the exhaust air into the rotor wash but even then the SA-7 was still able to occasionally lock onto the hot exhausts and engine compartment and remained a threat. The Portuguese airforce like a number of airforces involved in "low intensity" COIN (Counter Insurrection) operations also suffered losses to the SA-7 and had to upgrade its equipment since the SA-7 proved to be able to home in on the hot engines and exhausts of piston engined aircraft like the North American T-6 and other popular COIN aircraft.

During the Yom Kippur war the SA-7 saw large scale service against high speed jet fighter bombers. The Arab states are said to have fired more than 4000 SA-7 rounds against Israeli Skyhawks and other such ground attack aircraft and scored 7 shot down and another 30 damaged 2). This tally reveals another weakness of the SA-7, the inability of its warhead to inflict significant damage to the airframe of a heavy, fixed wing military aircraft unless it scored a direct hit. The SA-7s record from the Yom Kippur war appears to be unimpressive on first glance due to the low proportion of "kills" against low flying Israeli aircraft. The above cited statistics are frequently used to point out the incompetence of the Soviets and their Arab allies. This line of argumentation unfortunately conveniently ignores the fact that many of these 4000 rounds that missed forced the attacker to abandon his attack run as soon as the SA-7 was fired, jettison his bombs, and zoom up above the SA-7s ceiling. Thus the SA-7 thwarted many Israeli air-strikes and forced the Israeli attacker into the domain of heavier surface to air missiles and FLAK guns, a fact who's significance is often underestimated.

The SA-7 was mustered out in Soviet and Warsaw Pact service during the late 1980's. This was however not the end of the SA-7s service life. It is still manufactured under license in several improved incarnations in a number of countries3). Both these license built SA-7 missiles as well as portions of the large stocks of mustered out ex Soviet SA-7a and b missiles that were sold to various regimes around the world have proliferated to any of a number of Guerilla and Terrorist movements around the world. Although it is still limited to a tail chase the SA-7 both in its enhanced license built incarnations as well as its old Soviet version is still effective enough against helicopters and COIN aircraft lacking sophisticated counter measures. Moreover Terrorist movements like the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Hizbolla and the Tamil Tigers to name a few have increasingly discovered the hidden charms of the SA-7 which despite its limitations can easily shoot down or at least seriously damage a lumbering unprotected airliner on take off or landing. Unfortunately fitting a Boeing 767 or Airbus 320 airliner with IR decoy dispensers and IR jammers is no more of an option than creating a 15 km militarized safety zone around international airports in Europe and the USA. It is therefore unavoidable that obsolete or not an SA-7 rolled up in a carpet in the back of a van will remain the worst nightmare of every modern day airport security officer for the foreseeable future 4).

Summing the SA-7, the Redeye and their descendants up, they have provided infantry units with a highly mobile air defense that filled a gap in their equipment range. They are effective, cheap and easily portable. The airspace between 0 and 1500 meters was made considerably less safe than it had been until the appearance of these missiles and this even in places where effective guided SAM deployment had been unthinkable before man portable SAMs appeared. The man portable SAM family has also contributed the to lessening the effectiveness of helicopters. On the negative side for Governments all over the world the proliferation of man portable SAM missiles into the black market has also considerably enhanced the fighting power of Guerilla and Terrorist movements around the globe.

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