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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

SA-2: Russia’s Missile Designed to Kill the U.S. Air Force

F-4 Phantom. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

“SA-2s don’t play no games/Just kickin’ *** and a’takin’ names/You’re lookin’ at a bona fide shell-shocked Viet vet…” That is a line from the song “Viet Vet” by Dick Jonas (Lt. Col, USAF, Ret.), a former F-4 Phantom II fighter pilot in the Vietnam War who, subsequent to his honorable retirement from the Air Force in 1986, embarked upon a distinguished second career as a professional singer, known as “the fighter pilot’s minstrel” and “America’s Foremost Military Aviation Song Writer and Balladeer.”

By “SA-2s,” Dick means the SA-2 “Guideline,” which is the most widely used and, therefore arguably the most feared and successful surface-to-air missile (SAM) ever devised. Let’s now take a deeper dive into the history of this long-standing bane of American and allied military aviators.

SA-2 Guideline Early History and Specifications 

SA-2 “Guideline” is the NATO reporting name for what its Soviet designers officially designated the S-75 Dvina (named for a river in western Russia). Design commenced in 1953, and it went into production in 1957, with an estimated 4,600 launchers produced. The director of the project was Soviet rocket scientist Pyotr Dmitrevich Grushin (1906-1993), who was awarded the Hero of Socialist Labour in 1958 for his efforts.

The Dvina/Guideline had a solid fuel booster rocket that launched and accelerated it, then dropped off after about six seconds. While in the boost stage, the missile did not guide. During the second stage, the SA-2 guided, with a liquid-fuel rocket propelling it toward the target.

Specifications include an overall weight of 4,850 pounds, a blast-fragmentation warhead weight of 288 pounds, and a speed of Mach 3.5. Minimum operating range was five miles, maximum effective range about 19 miles and maximum slant range was 27 miles, with a ceiling of 60,000 feet.

Within three years of going operational, the SA-2/S-75 made history twice over. On 7 October 1959, it became the first SAM to destroy an adversary aircraft, with the downing of a Taiwanese-owned Martin RB-57D Canberra over communist China. Then on 1 May 1960 (the Communist holiday May Day, appropriately enough), the Guideline/Dvina shocked and utterly humiliated the United States by downing the U-2 “Dragon Lady” spy plane flown by Francis Gary “Frank” Powers.

Terror of the Vietnam Skies…and Beyond

It was during the Vietnam War that the Guideline missile gained its greatest degree of notoriety, at least among American fighter and bomber crewdogs. The first shootdown of U.S. aircraft over Vietnam by any type of SAM was pulled off by the SA-2, taking place on 24 July 1965, when the missile was used to kill one F-4C Phantom and damage three others.

One of the most famous victims of the SA-2 was then-LCDR and future U.S. Senator John S. McCain who, during a 26 October 1967 over Hanoi, suffered the misfortune of having his A-4E Skyhawk’s right wing blown off by an SA-2, which resulted in Mr. McCain ending up as a POW for five-and-a-half years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison.

Then there was Operation Linebacker II, the so-called “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi in December 1972. Even though these bombing raids forced the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table and damn near won the war for the U.S, the SA-2 that delivered what the Vietnamese communists to this day regard as their greatest aerial triumph: the downing of more than a dozen B-52s during the operation. The commies even built a so-called B-52 Victory Museum to commemorate the occasion.

As a countermeasure, the U.S. Navy came up with the AGM-45 Shrike antiradiation air-to-surface missile and the Air Force created the Wild Weasel missions, tasked with destroying enemy SAM sites.

The SA-2 went on to demonstrate its deadly prowess in plenty of other wars around the globe, from the Six-Day War to the Yom Kippur War to the Iran-Iraq War to the Gulf War to the Yugoslav Wars to the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Where Are They Now?

The SA-2 remains very much in service with an estimated 22 nations, including adversaries – such as Cuba, Iran, and North Korea – and allies – such as Bulgaria and Romania – alike.

For those of you dear readers who have a morbid curiosity to see on these dastardly Commie-made missiles up-close-and-personal (without getting blown up in the process, that as), you have at least a couple of options: the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC; and the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio. I can personally vouch for the former location by virtue of having toured there, while the latter remains a Bucket List item of mine.

Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU).

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Written By

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).