Man Portable Surface to Air Missiles

The man on the ground has always had a particular dislike of ground attack aircraft and until the mid 1960s the basic infantry man was nearly defenceless, leaving them to sit out an attack and wait for air cover or mechanised anti aircraft guns which have always been in short supply. By the mid 1960s the first man portable Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) were coming into service. These were and in many respects still are, simple missiles fired from a shoulder held tube. The key breakthrough was the development of Infra red (IR) seeker heads which were robust enough for infantry use, these allowed the missile to lock onto the hot exhaust from the target and follow until the missile hit. At first the main use of these weapons was to deflect air attacks which could have been made with greater accuracy as they were far from lethal, (during the 1973 war in the Middle East 5,000 SA-7 missiles were used but brought down only 2 Israeli aircraft with 4 more possible hits). In Vietnam the use of these missiles forced the US to abandon low level attacks for medium and high level attacks which were less accurate. Over time these missile have slowly improved but are still far from accurate as British experience in the Falklands war illustrates. Using American Stinger missiles they tended to lock onto the largest heat source which including a warships funnel, and an Argentine Field Kitchen rather than the aircraft targeted. Some countries have experimented with mounting these weapons on helicopters to give them some defence vs. aircraft but with little success. Although effective vs. slower helicopters (with a 33% kill rate in Vietnam until countermeasures were adopted) with the development of accurate mid level bombing using laser guided bombs and stealth technology the utility of these weapons is decreasing. One worrying aspect is the potential use by terrorists against a civilian airliner, although this has been tried before in Greece with little success it is a dangerous possibility considering the portability of the weapon and the ease of use.
How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, TDP. (22 January 2001), Man Portable Surface to Air Missiles, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_portablesam.html

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