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The 1999 air campaign over Kosovo presents lessons about the current state of the surface-to-air-missile (SAM) threat that may be seriously misunderstood. Since aircraft losses were so few, complacency about the SAM threat may be an unwarranted conclusion. The air campaign was waged against a relatively modest air-defense system with no new-generation radar-guided missiles. Yet the presence of small numbers of advanced infrared (IR)-guided SAMs forced NATO air planners to restrict fixed-wing air operations to altitudes over 10,000 ft., thus inhibiting attacks and contributing to collateral damage to civilian targets. One overlooked aspect of the air campaign was the high loss rate suffered by NATO unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and its implications for information warfare.


Sales of high-end Russian SAMs, like the Almaz S-300PMU-1 (SA-10) seen here, have been very slow, with confirmed sales in recent years limited to China and Greece. (photo by S. Zaloga)

The deployment of advanced SAMs over the past decade has been slowed due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had been the worlds largest exporter of SAMs, especially medium- and high-altitude systems. Many of these weapons were delivered to Third World countries on soft credit or without charge, motivated by Soviet foreign-policy considerations. This policy has ended, and high-tech arms transfers to the developing world have shrunk dramatically. In recent years, Russian arms export has been driven by the need to earn hard currency in the hopes of arresting the catastrophic decline in the economic fortunes of Russian defense industries. Sales of advanced SAMs have been further hindered by arms embargoes against several major Soviet export clients, such as Iraq and Libya, and by lingering debts to the former Soviet Union by other clients such as Syria. As a result, there have been only a handful of sales of the double-digit SAMs in recent years, hardly any to the countries of concern. China has acquired modest numbers of the Antey Tor-M1 (SA-15) and Almaz S-300PMU (SA-10). Greece has purchased the Antey Tor-M1 and, responding to international pressures, deployed the controversial S-300PMU on Crete instead of Cyprus. India has acquired small numbers of the Tunguska air-defense gun vehicle with its integral Treugolnik (SA-19) missile and has reportedly signed deals for the Almaz S-300PMU (SA-10) and Antey S-300V (SA-12). Finland acquired a small number of Buk-M1 (SA-11) mobile SAMs in a deal to erase old Soviet-era debt. While the Soviet Union had SAM export sales on the order of 5,000 missiles annually in the mid-1980s, recent sales have fallen tenfold to barely 500 annually. Furthermore, most of these have been inexpensive manportable SAMs, not the sophisticated medium- and high-altitude systems. This pattern has not been confined to Russia, though Russia represents the most dramatic case. Non-Soviet SAM export sales averaged about 5,000 a year in the mid-1980s, and now are down to about 2,000 annually. As in the Russian case, most of these are manportable SAMs, with the French Mistral alone accounting for about 65 percent of the non- Soviet sales.


Serbia's strategic air defense was based around the older S-125 Pechora (SA-3) system. Although old, upgrades and clever tactics enabled it to down a F-117 stealth aircraft. (photos by S. Zaloga)

The Serbian air defenses in the Kosovo air campaign represented a fairly typical pattern of Soviet air defenses from the 1960-70 period. They are representative of the effects of stagnation in modern SAM proliferation through much of the world that had been dependent on Soviet supplies. As a result, they have implications beyond the Kosovo campaign.

Serbias strategic air defense was handled by a dwindling number of vintage Almaz S-75 (SA-2) and a small number of partly modernized Almaz S-125 Pechora (SA-3). Prior to the Yugoslav civil war, the air-defense command had six batteries of S-75s, totaling about 40 single-rail launchers, of which only three batteries were still operational in 1999. There were also 14 batteries of S-125s with 60 4-rail launchers of which about 50 launchers were still operational in 1999.

Air defense of the field army was handled by four regiments of 2K12 Kvadrat (SA-6) mobile radar-directed SAMs, with two of the regiments stationed with the Serbian forces in or near the Kosovo area. Yugoslavia originally had about 70 of these, but high attrition during the civil war left only about 25 in the field in 1999. Furthermore, these launcher vehicles really constituted only 6 autonomous batteries since a 1S91 (Straight Flush) radar vehicle is needed provide guidance for every four missile-launch vehicles. This cumbersome arrangement restricted the flexibility of the Kvadrat batteries.

Air defense at divisional level included Strela-1 (SA-9) and Strela-10 (SA-13) IR-guided, low altitude, vehicle-mounted SAMs. The more common of these was the older 9K31 Strela-1 (SA-9), with some 113 launcher vehicles delivered to Yugoslavia in the 1970s. The associated missile was manufactured in Yugoslavia under license before the war. The Strela-1 system consists of four missile launchers, mounted on a wheeled BRDM-2 light armored vehicle, and has an effective ceiling of 3,500 m. It employs an older uncooled lead-sulphide seeker with no IR counter-countermeasures capabilities. Yugoslavia received a total of only 17 of the more modern 9K35M Strela-10 (SA-13) in the 1980s. This is an evolutionary descendent of the Strela-1, but mounted on a tracked MT-LB chassis. The Strela-10 has IR counter-countermeasures with later versions of the missile having a two-channel seeker. Besides these standard systems, Serbian air-force units attempted to create improvised air-defense missiles for their bases using IR guided air-to-air missiles. The normal aircraft rail-launchers for R-60 (AA-8 Aphid) and R-73 (AA-11 Archer) were lashed on to ground mountings codenamed Pracka (Slingshot). Serbian sources later claimed that the R-73 launcher was successful, though there is little evidence to support this.

Small-unit air defense was handled by anti-aircraft guns and a significant number of old Strela-2M (SA-7) and new Igla (SA-16/-18) manportable SAMs. The Strela-2M was produced in Yugoslavia under the name Strela-2M2J Sava and was available in large numbers. Serbia managed to purchase about 75 of the new 9K310 Igla-1 (SA-16) manportable IR-guided SAM from Kazakhstan and other sources in the mid-1990s. In total, there were about 850 manportable IR-guided SAMs in the Serbian armed forces in 1999.

NATO took the threat posed by IR-guided SAMs the most seriously, as these had been the primary source of casualties in Operation Desert Storm. There was some confidence that the radar-directed missiles could be dealt with using traditional means of suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and electronic countermeasures (ECM). Unlike radar-guided SAMs, IR-guided SAMs present a serious suppression problem since the launchers rely entirely on passive sensors and are generally smaller, more mobile and easier to conceal. The older-generation IR-guided SAMs, such as the Strela-2M (SA-7) and Strela-1 (SA-9), use seekers that are more susceptible to conventional ECM, such as flares and hot brick IRCM. The newer IR-guided systems, such as the manportable Igla (SA-16/-18) and vehicle-mounted Strela-10 (SA-13), have more robust counter-countermeasures. Rather than risk aircrews to these systems, NATO planners restricted most air operations above 10,000 ft., where these small SAMs have very low probabilities of kill due to kinetic and sensor limits. Furthermore, the presence of these SAMs raised concerns about operating attack helicopters such as the AH-64 Apache deep behind Serbian lines and was a significant factor in US reluctance to deploy the Apache in combat.

The altitude limits succeeded in minimizing casualties to IR-guided SAMs. A single aircraft was hit by a shoulder-fired SAM, but it failed to fuze and bounced off the aircraft. Several other aircraft were damaged, possibly by this type of weapon. The mere presence of these weapons, however, inhibited air operations to a significant extent. Due to weather conditions, it forced NATO to abandon air missions when cloud cover precluded operations below the altitude limit, and none of the air forces other than the US had munitions such as the Joint Direct Attack Muntition (JDAM) that could be used in all-weather conditions. Secondly, it contributed to collateral damage against civilian targets. Although NATO aircraft did have electro- optical sensors for surveying targets before the strike, when used from medium altitudes, the resolution of the image in the cockpit is often mediocre. Civilian tractors and buses can be mistaken for military vehicles.


Although there were few in service in Kosovo, the Strela-10 (SA-13) was one of the more effective Serbian air-defense systems, since its guidance system includes IR counter-countermeasures.
(photos by S. Zaloga)

The lesson from this campaign for armies likely to face NATO or US air power is that investment in relatively inexpensive, new-generation IR-guided SAMs is the most cost-effective solution for tactical air defense. Even if they cause few or no aircraft casualties, they so inhibit air operations at lower altitudes that they can at least partly contribute to the air defense of ground units and degrade the effectiveness of attacking air units. This lesson has not been lost on several countries, and there is some evidence that both Iraqi and North Korean observers were present in Serbia during the air campaign.

The lesson for NATO and US air planners is that the threat posed by IR-guided missiles needs to be addressed more seriously. The development and deployment of directed IR countermeasures (IRCM) has been slow in the US Air Force and Navy, and even slower in the European NATO air forces. While the advent of GPS-guided munitions, such as the JDAM and the Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), will provide the ability to launch strikes against targets in all weather from safe altitudes, it does not solve the problem of recognition of mobile targets from these altitudes. Until the resolution of typical imaging-IR targeting sensors improves considerably, there will be some need to approach the mobile targets closely enough to determine visually whether they are hostile or civilian.

Existing NATO electronic countermeasures were largely effective against the Serbian radar-directed SAMs. A total of about 700 Kub (SA-6) and S-125 Pechora (SA-3) missiles were fired, with only two aircraft being downed. The fact that one of the two downed aircraft was an F-117 stealth aircraft has obscured the fact that Serbian medium- and high-altitude air defenses were almost totally ineffective even after having expended about 80 percent of their inventory of missiles. Traditional SEAD tactics were especially effective against the semi-fixed S-125 Pechora (SA-3), as its massive RSN-125 (Low Blow) engagement radar proved vulnerable. NATO claimed to have knocked out at 11 of 14 operational radars. Like many older systems, several launchers depended on a single engagement radar, so when the radar was knocked out, several launchers were rendered useless. The tracked, mobile 1S91 (Straight Flush) used with the Kvadrat (SA-6) system proved far more difficult to target, and it is not clear if any were knocked out. These systems were difficult for the Serbs to operate, since each battery of four 2P25 launcher vehicles depended on a single 1S91 radar vehicle for missile guidance and were cumbersome to deploy. As a result, they tended to be used for strategic air defense, moving when necessary to avoid NATO air attacks.

Systems like the Antey Tor-M1 (SA-15) may become benchmarks of the future threat and, unlike the old Kvadrat (SA-6) used by the Serbs, is entirely autonomous with its own onboard engagement radar. The Tor has already been sold to China and Greece. (photo by S. Zaloga)

The effectiveness of the Serbian air-defense network was also undermined by the age of the systems and by spotty maintenance. Soviet air-defense missiles typically had a warrantied shelf life of seven years, and most if not all of the Serbian S-125 (SA-3) and Kvadrat (SA-6) missiles were time expired. Time-expired missiles can often be brought back to zero-time at overhaul facilities. Serbian facilities, however, had suffered from the disruption of the Yugoslav dissolution, and rebuild at Russian facilities was unlikely due to international sanctions. Time-expired missiles may still be functional long after their warranty date, and there are known cases of successful launches of missiles more than ten years after warranty expiration. Nevertheless, the age of the missiles degraded the overall effectiveness of the air- defense system and may have contributed to the low success rate of the medium- and high-altitude SAMs. This pattern is likely to be repeated in many other armed forces, as the Soviet network of repair and upgrade programs for older missile systems has largely collapsed.

In 1998, prior to the Kosovo air campaign, the Serbian arms export company Yugoimport-SDPR advertised a new upgrade package for the S-125 Pechora (SA-3) and Kvadrat (SA-6) missiles systems. This was widely ignored in the West. The upgrade included the addition of a thermal-imaging camera and laser rangefinder to the S-125 fire-control system to allow the missile to be launched without first acquiring the target using the usual RSN-125 (Low Blow) radar. Data can be fed to the system from other radars. As a result, traditional means of defense against this system were undermined since they rely on radar warning and traditional guidance sequences. The loss of the F-117 stealth strike aircraft has been attributed to this upgrade, combined with clever detection tactics and stereotyped NATO flight planning (see Shrewd Tactics May Have Downed Stealth Fighter, JED, June 1999). The Serbians apparently networked their air-defense radars and were able to provide altitude and location information to the Pechora battery to ambush the F-117 when it flew along a predictable flight path. The loss of the F-117 appears to have far more to do with complacency and poor tactics than with technology. The Pechora upgrade helps to extend the life of this very old system, but it is not particularly robust and could be overcome both by tactics and technology.

The loss of the F-117 is a reminder that even forty-year-old systems can still have bite left in them, especially after modernization. The Russian air-defense firm Almaz is offering a similar upgrade package for both the S-75 Volga (SA-2) and S-125 Pechora (SA-3). Many countries unable to afford the new Almaz S-300PMU (SA-10) will, at least, be tempted to extend the life of their old systems. Egypt has become the launch customer for the Pechora upgrade, signing a contract to rebuild fifty systems in March 1999.

One of the overlooked lessons of the Kosovo air campaign was the extremely high attrition rate of NATO reconnaissance UAVs. Some 25 to 27 were lost in operations, of which 16 were US air vehicles. Some of these were lost to accidents, but a significant number were downed by IR-guided SAMs, according to Serbian sources. Many fell victim to the Strela-1 (SA-9) and Strela-10 (SA-13) vehicle-mounted SAMs, which have a higher-altitude capability than the manportable systems. There has been much talk about the information revolution in modern warfare. Yet something has to go out and collect this information, and high-resolution optical images are available only from airborne platforms when weather conditions are cloudy. Thus, UAVs played a vital role in intelligence collection and targeting during the campaign. The loss of unmanned UAVs is certainly preferable to the loss of manned reconnaissance aircraft in politically charged operations such as Kosovo. However, it remains to be seen whether these high attrition levels would be sustainable in a larger war against a better-equipped enemy. Most of the tactical UAVs have too small a payload to carry any reasonable ECM or IRCM package, so other approaches such as signature reduction may be necessary.


The most important lesson from Kosovo should not be that the radar-directed SAM threat can comfortably be ignored. Even though radar-directed SAMs did not present much of a threat in Kosovo, the hiatus in the sale of modern radar-guided SAMs may be coming to an end. The embargo has been lifted against Libya, and Russia is discussing advanced-SAM sales with Syria and other countries. France and Russia are pushing to lift the embargo against Iraq, and when this happens, a major SAM sale is likely to be one of the first aspects of Iraqi military modernization. Proliferation of advanced radar-directed SAMs may be accelerated by licensed production of Russian systems such as the Tor or S-300PMU in China. The Kosovo air campaign would have been a far more painful experience for NATO had there been even a single battery of S-300PMU in operation. There have never been any air operations carried out against an opponent defended with a missile system using contemporary track-via-missile guidance.

Nor is the technology remaining static. Many missile firms are beginning to realize that few countries can afford to replace the large and expensive high-altitude SAMs like the Russian S-125 (SA-3) or the US MIM-23 HAWK. Instead, there is considerable work being done on multistage hyper-velocity missiles, which attempt to provide a range envelope similar to the HAWK, but with for a lower purchase price and operating costs more similar to older medium-altitude systems. These include western systems like the Bofors RBS.23 BAMSE and Russian systems like Pantsir and Sosna. The Kosovo air campaign continued to demonstrate the difficulty of dealing with small, mobile SAM systems. The new systems will be more difficult to target, since each launch vehicle contains its own engagement radar and, thus, can operate autonomously, unlike the cumbersome Kvadrat and Pechora systems used by the Serbs. A proliferation of new SAMs of this type will complicate the SAM threat in future conflicts.

Steven J. Zaloga is a senior analyst at Teal Group Corp. responsible for its publication World Missile Briefing. He is the author of numerous books and articles on missiles and military technology, including the 1989 book Soviet Air Defense Missiles.

The Evolving SAM Threat: Kosovo and Beyond by Steven J. Zaloga. Journal of Electronic Defense, May 2000



  , 2000