I was watching a movie a while back. I think it was Behind Enemy Lines. There's a scene where an F-18 is getting chased by a Surface-to-Air missile for what seems like 10 minutes.
This is usually the point where I lose my ability to suspend disbelief and yell out "That's not how they work!"
So stick around to find out how they really do work and what it's like to be on the receiving end of one.
Or - "Who's this guy Sam and why is he making my life miserable?"
Surface-to-Air missiles or SAMs have been around since the late 1950s. They were the bane of U-2s over Russia and Cuba, B-52s over Hanoi and Israeli F-4s in 1973.
They come in many different forms, but there are two basic types: tactical and strategic. There are two basic forms of guidance: heat seeking and radar.
A tactical SAM is meant to travel with troops and protect them from aircraft and helicopters. They range in size from man-portable (SA-7, Stinger) to larger ones that travel on trucks or tracked vehicles (SA-6, SA-8). The smaller missiles are usually heat-seeking while the larger ones tend to use radar.
A quick note - I'm using the NATO designation for the Russian systems here.
A strategic SAM is meant to protect something important, like an airfield or a headquarters. They tend to be larger than their tactical counterparts and they are normally fixed in position. They can be moved, but it takes some time to pack them up and set up in a new location. They tend to be larger and capable of greater range and altitude. The Russian SA-2 and the US Patriot are common examples of this type of missile.
So how do they work? Heat-seekers do just what the name says. They follow the heat from your engines. The hotter the better. The early ones had to chase you from behind but the new ones have better seekers and can get you from the front. Back in the day you could deceive them by dropping flares, but the newer ones are smart enough to know what a flare looks like and ignore it.
The good news is these tend to be small, can't go very far or very high and have relatively small warheads. Even if one hits you, it may not bring you down.
Radar guided missiles come in several different flavors: "beam riders", "active", "semi-active", "command guided" or some combination. To make it simple, they normally have a search radar to find you and some type of tracking radar to guide the missile to you.
They can sometimes be defeated by jamming the radars and by dropping chaff (large clouds of tinfoil strips). Once again, the newer ones are a lot smarter and hence more dangerous.
A hit from one is also much deadlier. These things are about the size of telephone poles and carry something like 500 pounds of warhead wrapped in metal rods designed to shred your plane. In other words, close counts. A near miss will probably take you out.
There are also dedicated electronic warfare aircraft like EA-6Bs. These guys carry powerful jammers that can cover a wide area.
We also had F-4G "Wild Weasels" whose primary job was to hunt SAM sites. They carried something called a High Speed Anti-radiation Missile or HARM. Basically a missile with a built-in radar detector that homes in on the SAM site. The B-52 community really liked, no make that loved, Wild Weasels. We always felt a lot safer knowing they were in the area.
A B-52 has some tricks up its sleeve as well. We had some pretty impressive jammers of our own. Plus we had an Electronic Warfare Officer to run them. A fighter pilot, if he's lucky, just has a pod that he turns on and hopes it works.
EWOs are an amazing bunch. They can listen to beeps and squeaks in their headset while looking at a bunch of squiggly lines on a scope and tell you what it is and what it's doing.
"Pilot I've got an SA-2 in search mode" (He's looking for us)
"Pilot SA-2 is in acquisition mode" (He's found us. ruh roh)
"Pilot I've got missile guidance" (Eeek!)
My actual missile engagements didn't go by the script, however.
The first one was on a daylight mission. I happened to look down and saw a smallish missile streak past trailing white smoke. It was several thousand feet below us. I'm not sure what it was. Nothing had locked on to us. Whatever it was, it obviously couldn't reach our altitude of 40,000 feet so we didn't concern ourselves with it too much.
The next time was a little more interesting.
We were number two in a formation of three bombers attacking, ironically enough, a SAM support facility near Kuwait City. We were up around 40,000 feet, at night, completely blacked out. We were using NVGs to fly formation with all the lights off. Useful things, NVGs.
We were on the bomb run, less than a minute out, when I saw a bright flash from down on the ground. I looked down and saw two lights come up and start accelerating like nothing I'd ever seen before.
"OK, bullets start out fast and slow down. These things started out slow and they're speeding up so they must be......"
"Missile left! Breaking right!"
I roll into 90-120 degrees of bank. With all that wing a B-52 actually turns pretty well up high. The missiles are going mach 3 and won't turn very well. Plus the missile's rocket motor only burns for a short time - it's coasting most of the way. Think of a missile as basically a very fast airplane with very tiny wings. If I can force the missile to turn, it will bleed off kinetic energy.
This high bank angle also has us descending, which also works in our favor. If one of these things proximity fuses next to us, the blast will be going up while we're headed down. You don't want one going off under you.
Several seconds go by.....nothing. I'm thinking if we were going to get hit it would have happened by now. Meanwhile the Radar Navigator is screaming "Get back on target! Get back on target!" Good idea. If we scatter our bombs all over the countryside then the SAMs have done their job even without hitting us.
By now we've turned about 45 degrees off our bomb run. I crank it back the other way. It seems to take forever. Damn this thing's a pig. I get the course indicator centered up literally at the last second.
The #3 aircraft said the missiles kept on going past our altitude. They were probably SA-2s if they could reach that high. My EWO told me all he picked up was one quick sweep of a search radar. They probably took a quick peek to get our position, speed, direction and altitude then shot the missiles at us unguided. A skilled operator can make it work. Especially if they shoot a bunch of them at you.
As terrible as they are, wars sometimes produce funny stories. This one was related to me by another crew:
During the Gulf War, the Wild Weasels all used radio call signs named after beers. You might hear "Coors 62" or "Miller 51" on the radio. When they shot a HARM, they would announce it by calling "Magnum" over the tactical frequency.
The Iraqis were (understandably) scared to death of the Wild Weasels. Not being stupid, they would listen in on our radio frequencies. If they heard "Magnum!" they'd shut their radars off.
Bomber crews aren't stupid either. We knew the Iraqis were eavesdropping on us.
One night an Iraqi SAM site locked on to a B-52. The B-52 driver keyed his mike and yelled "Coors 61 Magnum!"
The radar shut off.