Procurement: SA-6 Elderly but Still Deadly


June 5, 2023: The Czech Republic recently donated two of its SA-6 Air Defense systems to Ukraine. Each system consists of four tracked missile launcher vehicles, each with three ready-to-fire missiles. There was also a tracked radar vehicle containing a radar that can detect aircraft out to 75 kilometers. Ukraine also received over a hundred missiles used by the SA-6. NATO nations are seeking additional SA-6 missiles from the more than two dozen SA-6 users worldwide. Since Ukrainian SA-6s will mainly deal with Russian missiles, the more SA-6 missiles the better.

The Czech SA-6 contribution was welcomed by the Ukrainians, who have long used the SA-6, which entered service in the late 1960s as the 2K12 Kub, and evolved into the Buk system by the 1980s. Buk was superior in many ways but the upgraded SA-6 was still quite useful, as the Ukrainians had discovered in 2022. SA-6 is effective against Russian cruise missiles, which are the main aerial threat to Ukrainian cities and military facilities. SA-6 was upgraded twice in the 1970s and a third upgrade at the end of the 1970s was renamed as the Buk system. It was actually a much improved SA-6 but all upgrades after that were considered improved Buk systems.

Buk development was not always successful. Older, reliable and still useful systems like SA-6 were upgraded and overcame a lot of their vulnerabilities to modern countermeasures. Over 10,00 SA-6 missiles have been produced. While production of SA-6 ended in the late 1980s, upgrades did not. SA-6 missiles underwent the most improvements, followed by the search radar and fire control system. Kub kept up, eventually receiving containers for the three missiles carried on the mobile missile launcher vehicle. Range of the SA-6 was 25 kilometers and max altitude was 8,000 meters (25,000 feet)

In 2015 Russia introduced a new version of its Buk anti-aircraft missile; the Buk M3. This version has a longer range (75 kilometers compared to 50 for the previous M2) and improvements in the guidance system and overall reliability. Development of the Buk M2, a radical redesign of the 1960s era SA-6, was completed in 1988, near the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the Soviet Union. This delayed its introduction. Russia was not able to start production until after 2002. When NATO discovered the Buk M2 they called it the SA-11. Buk began development in the 1970s because of the success of the SA-6 system in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The Buk M1 entered service in the 1980s while work got underway for the even more advanced M2 and M2E. These were the ones delayed by financial problems in the 1980s. The M2 missiles weighed 720 kg (1,587 pounds) each and have a max range of 50 kilometers. This was followed by a lighter (581 kg) version with the same range. The missiles were carried and launched from a tracked vehicle that now held four, rather than three missiles. Another vehicle has the target acquisition radar which has a range of over 150 kilometers.

As successful as the SA-6 was in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, that was due to the Israelis ignoring warnings that the SA-6 was quite effective. The Israeli learned that quickly and adapted but lost a lot of aircraft. The U.S. and Israel quickly developed electronic countermeasures. Russia responded by improving Buk but was never able to repeat the success of 1973, which was largely the result of Israel underestimating the SA-6 and the ability of Egyptian crews to operate the systems. Israel has not repeated that error since then and it was a wakeup call to the United States and other NATO countries as well.

The Russian Buk M2E missile had a range of 30 kilometers. The Finns received the Buk M2Es in payment for a $300 million debt that would have taken much longer to be paid off in cash. Russia has paid off many of its older (often Soviet era) debts with modern military equipment. Some of the recipients have found that the stuff wasn't modern, or effective, enough. Buk is a very stable and flexible system and was even adapted to use American Sparrow missiles and be quickly integrated into an air defense network using several different air defense systems. More recently Israel encountered Buk in Syria and used electronic countermeasures and airstrikes to destroy Buk systems that threatened their aircraft. Eventually Israel kept its aircraft out of Syria and launched air-to-surface missiles from aircraft inside Israel, Lebanon or Jordan against Syrian targets. These missiles were sometimes intercepted by Buk missiles. So far the SA-6 and Buk systems have shot down a lot more missiles than aircraft. Warplanes can be equipped with electronic countermeasures to protect them from Buk while air or ground launched missiles usually lack such protection. That is also changing, with some land-attack missiles receiving countermeasure capabilities to get past electronic defenses often deployed to defend ground targets.


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