By the end of the second world war the inadequacy of anti-aircraft guns against high-altitude bombers was quite evident. Despite the widespread deployment of anti-aircraft artillery by both sides, the majority of bombers were able to successfully strike their targets. Only interceptor aircraft made a significant dent. Their cost meant relatively few were available, so other methods of air defence inevitably had to be sought.

Guided missiles had actually been researched by Germany during the war but no designs had been ready for deployment before fighting ended. Their introduction made comprehensive and flexible air defence a real possibility, though early systems were inevitably primitive. Many nations that had pursued research into anti-aircraft missiles continue to do so, keeping pace with developments in offensive weaponry and delivery systems. Within a couple of decades of the war's end, anti-aircraft projectile weapons had been phased out completely as a means of strategic defence.

The Soviet Union was one of the most prolific manufacturers of surface to air missiles, beginning shortly after the end of WWII. New systems were constantly in development and this only tapered as the Soviet Union approached collapse at the end of the 1980s. Development continues, albeit on a limited scale. The volume of deployment over the last fifty years is unsurprising considering the border of the former Soviet Union was the longest in the world; several methods would be needed to defend them against incursion. The two fastest interceptor aircraft the world has ever known were designed and fielded as one such method.

Generally speaking a single system, if attempting to serve multiple and widely-differing roles, will probably not be particularly good at any of them, so specialisations existed. The systems produced by the Soviet Union were produced both to keep pace with local and foreign technological developments and to fulfil one of several broad air defence roles: local air defence (e.g. a company or battalion of units), regional/tactical air defence (division-level) and strategic air defence (large, generally static targets such as cities or organisational headquarters). At first the systems developed filled those roles in reverse order. Generally the larger the potential target the larger, longer-range, more destructive and less mobile the missiles deployed to protect it. These definitions blurred somewhat in the last thirty years as the platform systems became more capable but by and large remain unchanged.

This long experience of SAM system development has certainly paid dividends. Although Russia of today could hardly be said to be capable of manufacture (or indeed, maintenance or operation) of significant numbers of air defence systems it produced some very accomplished designs as Soviet Russia, particularly anti-ballistic missile systems (a fourth category that invented itself during the 1980s), in which the Soviet Union produced arguably the best currently available.

Many people are aware of the furore surrounding the dubious legality and, well, point, of the U.S's planned National Missile Defense system but far fewer are aware that Russia has, since the early 1950s, had a missile defence system of its own protecting Moscow. This system has been constantly in operation and has been consistently upgraded as new SAM systems have been introduced. Moscow, once surrounded by thousands of SA-1 silos is now, after several rounds of evolution, ringed by a net of mobile anti-missile SA-12 batteries.


This writeup records the deployment history of Soviet surface to air missile systems and provides a general overview of each. All of the systems listed below have their own separate nodes for further reading, though this writeup includes some small details here and there that I found since noding each system originally. Note the disparate ordering of the NATO name for each system with the actual chronology of its introduction, giving an idea of the differing periods of time between a system's introduction and the West getting their first peek at it.

  • 1950s
    • 1951 - development of the SA-1 was started.

    • 1953 - development of the SA-2 was started.

    • 1954 - Development of the SA-1 was completed and deployment began. The system was purely designed for protection of Moscow and by the end of this decade over 3000 silos ringed Russia's capital city. Moscow's ring road was originally built for use by the vehicles servicing these batteries. The SA-1 was a poor performer, as can be expected from its age, and it is not clear whether any were ever used. It remains one of the largest anti-aircraft missiles ever manufactured, though.

    • 1957 - Development of the SA-2 was completed and deployment began. The deployment was slower than that of the SA-1 and took around seven years.

    • 1959 - Development of the SA-3 was completed. A western satellite spotted a pair at a test site during this year.

  • 1960s
    • 1961 - Deployment of the SA-3 began, the system mostly augmenting SA-1 and SA-2 sites surrounding Moscow. The system also saw large export success; though slower and shorter-range than either of its predecessors it was more manoeuvrable making it better suited against the more agile fighter-bombers that were beginning to see service.

    • 1964 - deployment of the SA-2 was completed sometime during this year. Similarly to the SA-1 it was intended for static protection of large industrial and population centres. About 750 sites were built in total in Russia, though the system saw considerable export success (one source has it that the SA-2 is the most ubiquitous SAM system in the world) so the peak number could be several times that figure. Though the first usable Russian SAM it still had a low hit probability and many had to be launched against a target to be sure of a hit. This system most famously shot down Francis Gary Powers' U2 over Russia in 1960, and caused the only casualty of the Cuban Missile Crisis, shooting down Maj. Rudolf Anderson's U2 over Cuba.

      The SA-4 was also introduced this year. This was a system intended for medium range tactical defence. The huge missile was not only the first air-breathing example since the V-1 Flying Bomb and V-2 (it had a ramjet as its sustainer engine) but was the first Russian SAM system to have a mobile launch vehicle.

    • 1967 - The SA-5 was first deployed this year. This was a very long range high-altitude strategic system with the same intended targets as the SA-1, but it is not clear whether it ever replaced those systems defending Moscow. Again this system was an export success, seeing service in around fifteen countries. Ukraine's military, during a training exercise, accidentally shot down an Israeli Tupolev Tu-154 airliner with an SA-5 in 2001. It appears it has only ever been fired in combat by Libya, though according to one source was fired unsuccessfully against an SR-71 Blackbird by North Korea shortly after deployment began.

      This year also saw the deployment of the SA-6, one of the most ubiquitous SAM systems in the world. It is a medium-range tactical system, its capabilities slotting in nicely between the SA-4 and SA-8. Its most famous use was probably during the Yom Kippur war, when Egypt shot down several Israeli aircraft using it. However it has seen widespread deployment in the Middle East and in Europe. One is believed to have shot down an F-117 Nighthawk during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, though there is some disagreement over whether it was an SA-6 or an SA-3.

      Finally the SA-8 was introduced this year. This was Russia's first self-contained SAM system, with all of its detection, tracking and launch systems on a single amphibious vehicle. It was intended for tactical defence but needed its own short-range protection, as its missiles had quite a large 'dead zone', within which they were accelerating and could not lock onto a target. Eventually this system was replaced by the SA-15.

    • 1968 - The SA-9 was introduced this year. It was a short-range mobile system intended to fill the gap between medium range systems and shoulder-launched missiles like the SA-7, which was also introduced this year. The SA-7 was the first ever portable SAM system so unsurprisingly, was not particularly good. It used an infrared seeker to lock onto targets but was too easily confused. SA-7 missiles were known to veer towards the sun and even hills on hot days. Even when it did strike its target, destruction or downing was not guaranteed.

  • 1970s
    • 1974 - the SA-14 was introduced this year, intended to provide the Soviet military with a decent shoulder-launched SAM system, also called MANPADS. It was far less susceptible to jamming than the SA-7 and was more accurate thanks a seeker cooled with liquid nitrogen.

    • 1975 - the SA-13 was introduced this year, intended to replace the SA-9. The missiles had similar capabilities but the tracked launch vehicle was more heavily armoured and mobile. As with the SA-9 the vehicle only carries very rudimentary detection gear; mostly the system relies on radars at battalion headquarters for acquiring and tracking targets. The SA-13 is also capable of using the older missiles used by the SA-9, as well as unspecified shoulder-launched missiles, which can be fitted to its turret in place of the usual missile boxes.

    • 1978 - The SA-10 was introduced this year. This was a mobile system intended for long-range strategic defence against bombers and cruise missiles and by several accounts is extremely good at what it does. Later upgrades gave the system anti-ballistic missile capabilities. China has licensed production of this system, calling it HQ-10. Other export buyers include India and Cyprus.

  • 1980s
    • 1980 - the SA-11 was introduced this year. This is a medium-range system intended to replace the SA-6, to which it looks very similar. It has improved capabilities in all respects - the missiles are faster, more manoeuvrable, longer range and more destructive. The radars and launch systems are also more sophisticated and are able to operate with older SA-6 launchers.

    • 1983 - the SA-18 was introduced this year, a simplified version of the later SA-16 (see what I mean about the NATO names?). It shares aerodynamic improvements with the SA-16, giving it longer range and a higher top speed. Both it and the later SA-16 have considerably higher resistance to jamming than prior shoulder-launched SAMs.

    • 1985 - at around this time (the exact year isn't clear) the SA-19, a.k.a 2S6M Tunguska was introduced. This was intended to replace both the SA-9 and SA-13, as well as the ZSU-23-4 AAA system. It is the world's only operational land-based system that combines SAM and AAA systems in a single unit. This is a tracked vehicle intended for short range air defence of mobile assets against low-flying aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles.

    • 1986 - the SA-15 was introduced this year, intended to replace the SA-8. It is an all-weather, highly mobile system for short to medium range air defence. It can be used against a much wider range of targets than the SA-8 and even has some capabilities against precision guided munitions such as laser guided bombs.

      The SA-16 was also introduced this year. This was the full development of the SA-18. It has a longer range and higher resistance to jamming. As with all portable SAM systems it is short range, intended for use against low-flying aircraft and helicopters. It is still not as capable as the U.S. Stinger but was several times better than the SA-7

    • 1987 - the SA-12 was introduced this year, the first dedicated anti-ballistic missile system in the world. It comes in two versions: the Gladiator and the Giant. The Gladiator is primarily a strategic anti-aircraft defence system but also has capabilities against cruise and tactical ballistic missiles. The Giant is a pure anti-missile system and though not yet used in combat, in reported tests has performed excellently. Unfortunately it has not had any export success and is likely to be replaced by the SA-20/S-400, a highly modified version of the SA-10 which is currently in development. SA-12 batteries of both types replaced the SA-1 and SA-2 systems surrounding Moscow.

  • 1990s
    • 1990 - the SA-17 was introduced this year, albeit on a highly limited scale. It was a further evolution of the SA-11 and again looks similar, with further enhancements in missile performance and sophistication of detection and tracking systems. It has not yet had export orders, nor has it been put into mass production.

Node Index

This is the culmination of a noding project that began 3 years ago. Have mercy.

  • Mulchay, Paul; "Russian SAMs"; <>
  •; "Russian Surface to Air Missiles"; <>
  • My own nodes and of course, their sources too

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