I had not really noticed this missile at the Museum of Aviation. The reason was that it sits behind the eye-catching, powerful SR-71 “ Blackbird” in the Century of Flight Hangar. While I was walking down the stairs behind the SR-71 the other day, I realized that there was a missile there standing upright. It immediately caught my interest. It was an SA-2. It stands 35 feet tall.
As I stood there I thought of the recent downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 that was allegedly brought down by a Russian surface-to-air missile over Ukraine. The SAM that was used, if true, was surely a descendent of the Soviet designed S-75 Dvina SAM system that was created in the 1950s and used by the North Vietnamese in the Vietnam War. NATO gave the S-75 the designation “SA-2” and the name “Guideline.” According to many sources, the SA-2 became the most widely deployed air defense system in history.
The Soviets introduced the SA-2 system in 1957. There were 4,600 launchers built.
In the 1960s, the SA-2 became well known for several incidents. The most famous incident was the 1960 downing of Francis Gary Powers in the American U-2 spy aircraft over the Soviet Union. Another well-known downing of an American plane occurred in 1962 when another U-2 was hit with an SA-2 over Cuba.
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The greatest use of the SA-2 system was in Vietnam. With Soviet-built MiGs added to the mix of war along with surface-to-air missiles, U.S. planes were vulnerable to incoming fire. The U.S. had to quickly adapt. In his book “The 11 Days of Christmas,” Marshall L. Michel III writes, “It would be the first and only time that the latest and most modern air defense technologies of the Soviet Union and the most modern jet fighter planes and bombers of the United States confronted each other in combat.” About 200 U.S. aircraft were shot down by the SA-2 during the Vietnam Era.
Many pilots and crew who served in the skies of South and North Vietnam had stories of near misses from what some called “flying telephone poles” coming at them. With MiGs, SAMs and other types of small and large anti-aircraft fire, the skies over Vietnam were a dangerous place to be.
The SA-2 sites themselves had as many as six missiles on launchers, a guidance radar and an acquisition radar. According to the National Museum of the Air Force, “the SA-2 missile had a solid fuel booster that launched and accelerated it, then dropped off after about six seconds. While in the booster stage, the missile did not guide. During the second stage, the SA-2 was guided, and a liquid –fuel rocket propelled it to the target.”
The U.S. military had several answers to the SA-2, such as anti-radar missiles and powerful jamming equipment placed on aircraft. Fighter-bombers were fitted with radar homing and warning equipment that enabled the aircrew to detect and attack SAM sites and radar-guided guns. The aircrews and aircraft were known as “Wild Weasels” and they engaged the SAM sites in a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. The “Wild Weasels” courageously placed themselves in harm’s way to protect other American aircraft.
SA-2 missiles, in a more advanced form, are still used today in countries around the world. Countries like Vietnam, Egypt, North Korea and China are among them.
The next time you are over at the Museum of Aviation, take a look at the SA-2 behind the Blackbird. It is worth stopping for a moment and reflecting on its history and the impact it has had on our world.