A SAM site for sore eyes

A while back I decided to make another objective piece for my game board in the form of a SAM site. Both GHQ and C-in-C miniatures stock a few different SAM-systems, and I decided to build a layout based on the S-125 Neva (NATO reporting name SA-3 Goa) from C-in-C.

I find SAM sites fascinating as a piece of geography. From the air, they remind me of the Nazca Lines or crop circles; oddly mystical, evoking rituals and hidden meanings. And there’s actually a historical incident where the visual interpretation of SAM site layouts influenced history, rather than them blowing something up. I figured that story could be a nice lead in, so join me after the break.

S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guidline) site.
Nazca lines condor.

Essence of Decision

When I studied Peace & Conflict theory at university we had a seminar around a classic work of political Science called Essence of Decision by Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow. The author’s basic idea is to use a historical event, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, to propose different theories of how decisions are made in large organisations (like states) with imperfect information. One of the theoretical frameworks the books constructs is that of Standard Operating Procedures.

When the inner circle around Kennedy first got U2 spyplane pictures of the missile bases in Cuba, they realised that the layouts of the SAM sites and nuclear missile launch sites were constructed exactly as during training sessions in the Soviet Union. This made them very easy for American intelligence to detect, since they already knew what patterns to look for from previous photos taken over Russia. Moreover, the camo netting and concealment methods were optimised for Russian conditions rather than the tropic conditions in Cuba.

S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) site.

Kennedy’s staff interpreted this as the Soviets deliberatly trying to send a message. Of course they knew that the Americans could easily see through these concealment methods, so what other reason could there be for this easily detectable choice of layouts? Kennedy was told that he was being pushed around by a cocky Kruschev, who didn’t care if the US knew about the sites, or maybe even wanted the US to. This was one factor pushing Kennedy to take a hard stance.

However, the reason for the choice of site layouts and concealment methods was not bravado. Rather, Allison and Zelikow shows how it is an effect of Standard Operating Procedures. A political decision had been made to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba, along with their defensive SA-2 SAM-sites. How that was to happen in practical detail on the ground was of course not specified in the political decision. As the instructions filter down the chain of command, they end up in the units that actually go out and deploy the missiles. And these units did this according to their Standard Operating Procedures that they had practiced time and again in Siberia.

So viewing a large apparatus like the Soviet state like a monolithic actor with a single mind caused the erroneous interpretation of SAM-site geography to escalate tensions during the Cuban missile crisis.

A tale of two bakers – The S125 Neva in history

As I mentioned above, my choice of SAM-system for the terrain piece is the S-125 Neva (SA-3 Goa). This is one of the most widely adopted radar guided air defense missile systems in the world. Its predecessor, the S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline), was used to great effect in the defense of North Vietnam against US air strikes. The US Air Force adapted to the threat in various ways however, one of which were to fly low. The S-75’s radar system and missile maneuverability made it ineffective against low flying targets. Learning from this, the Soviet Union developed the S-125, which had a much greater ability to engage and destroy low flying targets.

During the Arab-Israeli October war of 1973, the Israeli Air Force took heavy losses from both S-125 and S-75 systems. Eyal Weizman describes in his (excellent) book Hollow Land how the combination of superior air defense on the Arab side and superior Air Force on the Israeli side “flattened” the battlefield to the horizon. The sky belonged to no one.

Egyptian (I think) S-125 Neva launcher.

If there’s one place the Israeli Air Force keeps bombing almost as much as Gaza its Lebanon. This was no different during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. However, the Syrian Army threw a spanner in this endeavour by deploying their Soviet made air defense assets, mainly S-125 Nevas, throughout the country via their own invasion.

But the Israelis had done their homework since the October War. The mostly static Syrian air defense network was quickly identified, mapped, and then destroyed by the Israeli Air Force in Operation Mole Cricket 19.

mole cricket 19 phantom.jpg
An Israeli F-4 Phantom prepares for a sortie during Operation Mole Cricket 19. Under the wing we can see an electro-optically guided glide bomb.

Someone who in turn did his homework after Operation Mole Cricket 19 was Zoltán Dani, a Serbian air defense colonel in command of an S-125 Neva battery. After analysing Israeli air defense suppression tactics in Lebanon, he correctly concluded that if your SAM site stays put in one place and keeps its radar on like a lighthouse, you’re getting a one way ticket to explosion city. Once you’ve turned the radar on, an enemy can use the radar beam to pinpoint your position, and subsequently saturate it with precision guided weapons.

Dani’s response was to drill his battery in quickly assembling and disassembling, in order to relocate at a moment’s notice. He also pressed hard on radar discipline, limiting radar use to two twenty second bursts from each new location, after which the battery must relocate. During NATO’s bombing campaign over Serbia  in 1999, Operation Allied Force, these tactics payed off. Dani’s battery managed to stay alive. Not only that, they also managed the historically unique feat of shooting down an F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber.

Wreckage of the F-117 shot down by Dani’s S-125 battery.

Dani and his colleagues noticed that the stealth bomber raids tended to take place along the same corridors and at the same times each day. As they now knew where to look, they could figure out what to look for. After modifying the battery radar, they managed to get a successful lock on Lt. Colonel Dale Zelko’s F-117 on March 27th, 1999, subsequently shooting it down.


In a strange twist, Dani and Zelko were later brought together to meet eachother by a documentary film maker. They went on to become friends, and would start spending time on a regular basis. Dani had quit the military after the war and was now running a bakery. So Zelko would visit Serbia with his family and they would bake bread together.

Zoltàn Dani (left) and Dale Zelko literally breaking bread.

The scenery piece

So in typical Northern Wedding fashion it took a while to get to the point, but here is the finished piece of scenery.


I used the same seven hex layout that I’ve used for the towns and factory showcased in earlier posts. The distances between the radar, command, and launcher dugouts are disproportionate, but I figured I didn’t want the piece to take up half the table.


The site lacks the correct radar for the S-125. The S-125 system uses the Almaz SNR-125 engagement radar, NATO reporting name Low Blow. However, neither C-in-C nor GHQ stock these. So I’ve swapped it for a Long Track search radar mounted on top of an AT-T tractor. Close enough, I reckon.

S-125 launch with Low Blow engagement radar in the foreground.


S-125 launchers and Long Track radar on AT-T tractor.

I chose to give the launchers a desert colour scheme. Partly to break up the never ending stream of olive drab and green on the board, and partly to keep them interchangable if I ever make an arid tileset as well (perish the thought.)

A BTR-60PB acts as stand-in for the site command vehicle in the background.


As always I hope you enjoyed the piece, and thank you for your time!

Appendix/bonus material – How does a radar SAM actually work?

I’ve included the part below as an appendix as I felt it didn’t really work in the flow of the rest of the piece. It gives a little background on how I designed the layout of the site.

Basically, in order to destroy an aircraft from the ground at long range you need some way of detecting its position and relaying that information to a missile which uses it as guidance to intercept and destroy it.

Generally speaking, detection is accomplished with a search radar. The search radar continually scans a large area for potential contacts with a wide radar beam. Once a target is detected, the search radar relays the compass bearing, altitude, heading and speed of the target to a targeting radar. The targeting radar uses this information to find and “paint” the target with narrow, high energy radar pulses that the missiles will track once launched. Most combat aircraft carry detectors that can sense when they are being tracked or painted by a radar. In US air force jargon, a ground radar painting you is referred to as a “mud spike.” If you get a mud spike, you’re in trouble, as it means a targeting radar is tracking your aircraft.

Many SAM radars combine the roles of search and targeting by operating in different beam modes. This is also true of most radars found in combat aircraft. Most cold war era SAM radars could only paint a single target at a time, as the radar is directing its beam at a single point. As such, you would need a targeting radar with its own missiles slaved to it for each target you want to simultaneously engage.

So, SAM sites would generally contain at least a targeting radar, a number of launchers slaved to the radar, as well as areas for keeping spare ammunition, and finally a position for the command post that directs the operation of the site.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s