Surface-to-air missile
A surface-to-air missile (SAM) or ground-to-air missile (GTAM) is a missile
Though a missile may be any thrown or launched object, it colloquially almost always refers to a self-propelled guided weapon system.-Etymology:The word missile comes from the Latin verb mittere, meaning "to send"...

 designed to be launched from the ground to destroy aircraft
An aircraft is a vehicle that is able to fly by gaining support from the air, or, in general, the atmosphere of a planet. An aircraft counters the force of gravity by using either static lift or by using the dynamic lift of an airfoil, or in a few cases the downward thrust from jet engines.Although...

 or other missiles. It is one type of anti-aircraft system
Anti-aircraft warfare
NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

; in modern armed forces missiles have replaced most other forms of dedicated anti-aircraft weaponry, with the anti-aircraft cannon pushed into niche roles.


The first mention in history of a surface to air missile was by inventor Dr. Gustav Rasmus in 1931, in which a missile would home in on an aircraft by sound.

German efforts

Development of such weapons started in earnest in the 1940s, notably in Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

. The earliest designs were offshoots of the rocketry work being carried out by the Peenemünde
The Peenemünde Army Research Center was founded in 1937 as one of five military proving grounds under the Army Weapons Office ....

 teams, and started as paper projects as possible developments of the work. An actual design was not presented until 1940's Feuerlilie
Feuerlilie was the code name of a German anti-aircraft missile, which was developed in 1940 and was shelved because of problems with the controller and the drive section at the end of January 1945 in favour of other projects. The Feuerlilie was built and tested at Rheinmetall-Borsig in two...

, and 1941's Wasserfall and Henschel Hs 117 Schmetterling. However, none of these projects saw any real development until 1943, when the first large-scale raids by Allied air fleets started. As the urgency of the problem grew, new designs were added to the mix, including the Enzian
The Enzian was a German WWII surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile that was the first to use an infrared guidance system...

 and Rheintochter
Rheintochter was a German surface-to-air missile developed during World War II. Its name comes from the mythical Rheintöchter of Richard Wagner's opera series Der Ring des Nibelungen.- History :...


In general, these designs could be split into two groups. One group flew at low speeds, on the order of several hundred kilometers an hour, and were guided in front of the targets and then flown towards them like an aircraft. These designs included the Feuerlilie, Schmetterling and Enzian. The second group were high-speed missiles, typically supersonic, that flew directly towards their targets from below. Both used radio control
Radio control
Radio control is the use of radio signals to remotely control a device. The term is used frequently to refer to the control of model vehicles from a hand-held radio transmitter...

 for guidance, either by eye or by comparing the returns of the missile and target on a single radar screen. Development of all of these systems had to be carried out at the same time, and the war ended before any of them was ready for combat use. In-fighting between various groups in the military also hurt development. Some extreme fighter designs, like the Komet and Natter
Bachem Ba 349
The Bachem Ba 349 Natter was a World War II German point-defence rocket powered interceptor, which was to be used in a very similar way to a manned surface-to-air missile. After vertical take-off, which eliminated the need for airfields, the majority of the flight to the Allied bombers was to be...

, also overlapped with SAMs in their intended combat role.

Albert Speer was especially supportive of the missile development. In his opinion, had they been consistently developed from the start, the large scale bomber raids of 1944
Combined Bomber Offensive
The Combined Bomber Offensive was an Anglo-American offensive of strategic bombing during World War II in Europe. The primary portion of the CBO was against German Air Force targets which was the highest priority from June 1943 to 1944...

 would have been impossible.

Other early efforts

The United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

 first began to study SAMs in a project known as Operation Bumblebee. This was in response to actions in which Navy ships were hit by air-launched Henschel Hs 293
Henschel Hs 293
The Henschel Hs 293 was a World War II German anti-ship guided missile: a radio-controlled glide bomb with a rocket engine slung underneath it. It was designed by Herbert A. Wagner.- History :...

 glide bomb
Glide bomb
A glide bomb is an aerial bomb modified with aerodynamic surfaces to modify its flight path from a purely ballistic one to a flatter, gliding, one. This extends the range between the launch aircraft and the target. Glide bombs are often fitted with control systems, allowing the controlling aircraft...

s and Fritz X
Fritz X
Fritz X was the most common name for a German guided anti-ship glide bomb used during World War II. Fritz X was a nickname used both by Allied and Luftwaffe personnel. Alternate names include Ruhrstahl SD 1400 X, Kramer X-1, PC 1400X or FX 1400...

 anti-ship missile
Anti-ship missile
Anti-ship missiles are guided missiles that are designed for use against ships and large boats. Most anti-ship missiles are of the sea-skimming type, many use a combination of inertial guidance and radar homing...

s during 1943. Using these weapons, the launching aircraft never came into the range of the ship's anti-aircraft guns, while the missiles were too small and fast to be attacked effectively. A ramjet-powered anti-aircraft missile was proposed to destroy launcher aircraft at long range. Initial performance goals were target intercept at a horizontal range of 10 miles and 30,000 feet altitude, with a 300 to 600 pound warhead for a 30 to 60 percent kill probability. Heavy shipping losses to Kamikaze
The were suicide attacks by military aviators from the Empire of Japan against Allied naval vessels in the closing stages of the Pacific campaign of World War II, designed to destroy as many warships as possible....

 attacks during the Battle of Okinawa
Battle of Okinawa
The Battle of Okinawa, codenamed Operation Iceberg, was fought on the Ryukyu Islands of Okinawa and was the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific War of World War II. The 82-day-long battle lasted from early April until mid-June 1945...

 provided additional incentive for guided missile development.

Testing began in 1945 with the PTV-N-4 Cobra, built by the Applied Physics Laboratory
Applied Physics Laboratory
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory , located in Howard County, Maryland near Laurel and Columbia, is a not-for-profit, university-affiliated research center employing 4,500 people. APL is primarily a defense contractor. It serves as a technical resource for the Department of...

. However, development of the guidance, propulsion and radar systems at the same time led to long delays, and it was not until 16 years later that the RIM-8 Talos
RIM-8 Talos
The Bendix RIM-8 Talos was a long-range naval surface-to-air missile, and was among the earliest surface-to-air missiles to equip United States Navy ships. The Talos used radar beam riding for guidance to the vicinity of its target, and semiactive radar homing for terminal guidance...

 missile was cleared for operational use. In that time, developments of simpler rocket engines had led to the development of the RIM-2 Terrier
RIM-2 Terrier
The Convair RIM-2 Terrier was a two-stage medium-range naval surface-to-air missile , and was among the earliest surface-to-air missiles to equip United States Navy ships. Originally, the Terrier had a launch thrust of 23 kN , and weight of 1392 kg...

, originally a weapon of severely limited performance with a range of only 19 km. Improved versions followed quickly, and the Terrier ended up taking over many of the roles the Talos was originally designed for.

The U.S. Army started their own development project, Project Nike
Project Nike
Project Nike was a U.S. Army project, proposed in May 1945 by Bell Laboratories, to develop a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system. The project delivered the United States' first operational anti-aircraft missile system, the Nike Ajax, in 1953...

, in 1944. They saw that their anti-aircraft artillery would be effectively useless against high-flying jet aircraft. This led to the introduction of the Nike Ajax missile in 1952, and the Nike Hercules in 1958. This was joined by the U.S. Army Air Force's 1946 requirement for an aircraft-like weapon with extremely long range, developed as part of Project Bumper. This led to the CIM-10 Bomarc with a range of over 500 km.

Soviet developments did not start in earnest until the post-war era, but with the opening of the cold war
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

 this became a major effort. Stalin was worried that Moscow would be subjected to bombing efforts like those against Berlin, and in 1951 demanded that a missile system to counter a 1,000 bomber raid be built as quickly as possible. This led to the S-25 Berkut system (SA-1 in NATO terminology), which was designed, developed and deployed in a rush program, to become the first operational SAM system in the world in 1953. SA-1 was only of use for static defence against low-speed targets, but with it in place time was given to develop a follow-on system. This emerged in 1957 as the famous S-75 Dvina
S-75 Dvina
The S-75 Dvina is a Soviet-designed, high-altitude, command guided, surface-to-air missile system...

 (SA-2), a portable system with very high performance which remains in operation into the 2000s. As the nature of the threat did not change, the Soviets, and today Russia, remained at the forefront of SAM development throughout its history.

The UK followed with similar weapons, notably the RAF's Bristol Bloodhound in 1958, and the Army's English Electric Thunderbird
English Electric Thunderbird
The English Electric Thunderbird was a British surface to air missile produced for the British Army. The Thunderbird was primarily intended to attack higher altitude targets at ranges of up to thirty miles or so. AA guns were still used for lower altitude threats...

 in 1959.

Smaller, faster

All of these early systems were "heavyweight" designs with limited mobility and requiring considerable set-up. However, they were also increasingly effective. By the early 1960s, deployments of SAMs had rendered high-speed high-altitude flight in combat practically suicidal. The way to avoid this was to fly lower, below the line-of-sight of missile's radar systems. This demanded very different aircraft, like the F-111, TSR-2, and Panavia Tornado
Panavia Tornado
The Panavia Tornado is a family of twin-engine, variable-sweep wing combat aircraft, which was jointly developed and manufactured by the United Kingdom, West Germany and Italy...

, but these designs were essentially invulnerable to these larger SAM systems.

As a result, SAMs evolved rapidly in the 1960s. As their targets were now being forced to fly lower due to the presence of the larger missiles, engagements would necessarily be at short ranges, and occur quickly. Shorter ranges meant the missiles could be much smaller, which aided them in terms of mobility. By the mid-1960s almost all modern armed forces had short-range missiles mounted on trucks or light armour that could move with the armed forces they protected. Examples include the 2K12 Kub (SA-6) anf 9K33 Osa
9K33 Osa
The 9K33 OSA is a highly mobile, low-altitude, short-range tactical surface-to-air missile system. "9K33" is its GRAU designation. Its NATO reporting name is SA-8 Gecko.-Description:...

 (SA-8), MIM-23 Hawk
MIM-23 Hawk
The Raytheon MIM-23 Hawk is a U.S. medium range surface-to-air missile. The Hawk was initially designed to destroy aircraft and was later adapted to destroy other missiles in flight. The missile entered service in 1960, and a program of extensive upgrades has kept it from becoming obsolete. It was...

, Rapier
Rapier missile
Rapier is a British surface-to-air missile developed for the British Army and Royal Air Force. Entering service in 1971, it eventually replaced all other anti-aircraft weapons in Army service; guns for low-altitude targets, and the English Electric Thunderbird, used against longer-range and...

, Roland and Crotale.

The introduction of sea-skimming missiles in the late 60s and 70s led to additional mid- and short-range designs for defence against these targets. The RIM-7 Sea Sparrow
RIM-7 Sea Sparrow
RIM-7 Sea Sparrow is a US ship-borne short-range anti-aircraft and anti-missile weapon system, primarily intended for defense against anti-ship missiles...

 was an early example, which quickly proliferated into a wide variety of designs fielded by most navies. Many of these are adapted from earlier mobile designs, but the special needs of the naval role has resulted in the continued existence of many custom missiles.


As aircraft moved ever lower, and missile performance continued to improve, eventually it became possible to build an effective man-portable anti-aircraft missile. Known as MANPADs, the first example was a German WWII design known as the Fliegerfaust
The Fliegerfaust , also known as the "Luftfaust" , was a prototype unguided German multi-barreled ground-to-air rocket launcher designed to destroy enemy ground attack planes.- Overview :...

, but it never entered operation. The performance gap between this weapon and jet fighters of the post-war era was so great that such designs would not be effective. But by the 1960s technology had closed this gap to a degree, leading to the introduction of the FIM-43 Redeye
FIM-43 Redeye
The General Dynamics FIM-43 Redeye was a man-portable surface-to-air missile system. It used infrared homing to track its target. Production was terminated in September 1969 after about 85,000 rounds had been built - in anticipation of the Redeye II, which later became the FIM-92 Stinger...

, SA-7 Grail and Blowpipe. Rapid improvement in the 1980s led to second generation designs like the FIM-92 Stinger
FIM-92 Stinger
The FIM-92 Stinger is a personal portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile , which can be adapted to fire from ground vehicles and helicopters , developed in the United States and entered into service in 1981. Used by the militaries of the U.S...

, 9K34 Strela-3
9K34 Strela-3
The 9K34 Strela-3 man-portable air defence missile system was developed in the Soviet Union as a response to the poor performance of the earlier 9K32 Strela 2 system. "9K34" is its GRAU designation and its NATO reporting name is SA-14 Gremlin. The missile was largely based on the earlier Strela...

 (SA-14) and Starstreak
Starstreak missile
Starstreak is a British short range surface-to-air missile manufactured by Thales Air Defence , in Belfast. It is also known as Starstreak HVM where HVM stands for "High Velocity Missile". After launch the missile accelerates to approximately Mach 3.5, at which point it launches three laser beam...

 of dramatically improved performance.

Through the evolution of SAMs, improvements were also being made to anti-aircraft artillery, but the missiles pushed them into ever shorter-range roles. By the 1980s, the only remaining widespread use was point-defense of airfields and ships, especially against cruise missile
Cruise missile
A cruise missile is a guided missile that carries an explosive payload and is propelled, usually by a jet engine, towards a land-based or sea-based target. Cruise missiles are designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high accuracy...

s. By the 1990s, even these roles were being encroached on by new MANPAD and similar weapons.

General information

Surface-to-air missiles are classified by their guidance
Missile guidance
Missile guidance refers to a variety of methods of guiding a missile or a guided bomb to its intended target. The missile's target accuracy is a critical factor for its effectiveness...

, mobility, altitude
Altitude or height is defined based on the context in which it is used . As a general definition, altitude is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The reference datum also often varies according to the context...

 and range
Trajectory of a projectile
In physics, the ballistic trajectory of a projectile is the path that a thrown or launched projectile will take under the action of gravity, neglecting all other forces, such as friction from air resistance, without propulsion....


Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) are the smallest of SAMs and are capable of being carried and launched by a single person and thus suitable for local air defence, such as against attack helicopters. They are sometimes attached to vehicles in order to increase their mobility. Generally, MANPADS have a range of around five kilometres (three miles). Soviet MANPADS have been exported around the world and can still be found in many of their former client states. Other nations have developed their own MANPADS.

Larger land-based SAM's can be deployed from fixed installations or mobile launchers. In the case of mobile launchers, they are either wheeled or tracked. The tracked vehicles are usually armored vehicles specifically designed to carry SAMs. Larger SAMs may be deployed in fixed launchers, but can be towed/re-deployed at will. The range of mobile SAMs varies greatly, from just over a dozen to several hundred kilometres. For example, the Russian S-400
The S-400 Triumf is a new generation anti-aircraft weapon system developed by Russia's Almaz Central Design Bureau as an upgrade of the S-300 family. It is currently in limited service with the Russian Armed Forces....

 has a claimed range of 400 km.

Ship-based SAMs are also considered surface-to-air. Virtually all surface warships can be armed with SAMs. In fact, naval SAMs are a necessity for all front-line surface warships. Some warship types specialize in anti-air warfare e.g. Ticonderoga-class
Ticonderoga class cruiser
The Ticonderoga class of missile cruisers is a class of warships in the United States Navy, first ordered and authorized in FY 1978. The class uses phased-array radar and was originally planned as a class of destroyers...

 cruisers equipped with the Aegis combat system
Aegis combat system
The Aegis Combat System is an integrated naval weapons system developed by the Missile and Surface Radar Division of RCA, and now produced by Lockheed Martin...

 or Kirov class cruisers
Kirov class battlecruiser
The Kirov-class battlecruiser is a class of nuclear-powered military ships of the Russian Navy, the largest and heaviest surface combatant warships currently in active operation in the world. The Russian designation is heavy nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser...

 with the S-300PMU Favorite missile system.

Target acquisition

Targets for non-MANPAD SAMs will usually be acquired by air-search radar
Radar is an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. The radar dish or antenna transmits pulses of radio...

, then tracked before or while a SAM is "locked-on"
Missile lock-on
Missile lock-on refers to a scenario where the guidance system for a missile can accurately track a target, and a fire-control system can calculate the required flightpath for the missile to hit the target...

 and then fired. Potential targets, if they are military aircraft, will be identified as friend or foe
Identification friend or foe
In telecommunications, identification, friend or foe is an identification system designed for command and control. It is a system that enables military and national interrogation systems to identify aircraft, vehicles, or forces as friendly and to determine their bearing and range from the...

 before being engaged.

See also

  • Anti-aircraft warfare
    Anti-aircraft warfare
    NATO defines air defence as "all measures designed to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of hostile air action." They include ground and air based weapon systems, associated sensor systems, command and control arrangements and passive measures. It may be to protect naval, ground and air forces...

  • Man-portable air-defense system
  • Missile guidance
    Missile guidance
    Missile guidance refers to a variety of methods of guiding a missile or a guided bomb to its intended target. The missile's target accuracy is a critical factor for its effectiveness...

  • List of NATO reporting names for surface-to-air missiles
  • List of surface-to-air missiles
  • SEAD
    Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses , also known as "Wild Weasel" and "Iron Hand" operations in the United States, are military actions to suppress enemy surface-based air defenses , primarily in the first hours of an attack.One fourth of American combat sorties in recent conflicts have been SEAD...

    , Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, the mission of finding and destroying SAM and AA gun installations. The SEAD mission in the United States Air Force
    United States Air Force
    The United States Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the American uniformed services. Initially part of the United States Army, the USAF was formed as a separate branch of the military on September 18, 1947 under the National Security Act of...

     is designated “Wild Weasel
    Wild Weasel
    A Wild Weasel is an aircraft specially equipped with radar seeking missiles, and tasked with destroying the radars and SAM installations of enemy air defence systems....


External links

  • Rest-of-World Missile Systems from the Federation of American Scientists
    Federation of American Scientists
    The Federation of American Scientists is a nonpartisan, 501 organization intent on using science and scientific analysis to attempt make the world more secure. FAS was founded in 1945 by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs...

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