The Soviet-built Strela-2 Man Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) system was developed in the late 1950s, based heavily on intelligence gleaned by the KGB about the American FIM-43 Redeye surface-to-air missile (SAM). It had an impact on the battlefield far beyond its technical capabilities in virtually all the world’s late 20th-century conflicts. The Strela (“Arrow”), code-named “SA-7 Grail” by NATO, holds the distinction of being the first MANPAD successfully employed in combat—in Egypt in 1969. Vietnam was the second conflict to see its use.
While early models suffered from slow acceleration, the Grail proved very effective against low-flying, slow-moving aircraft, such as helicopters, the A-1, T-28 and A-26. Since few pilots were warned of its arrival in Vietnam, the missile’s early engagements enjoyed the advantage of surprise and its targets’ lack of infrared countermeasures, such as flares. The first known use of SA-7s in South Vietnam came in May 1972 when one downed an O-2A observation plane and then several of the helicopters involved in the pilot’s recovery. Grails were reportedly responsible for downing 16 aircraft in the May-June 1972 Battle for Quang Tri, where their deadly reputation grew. As American aircrews learned the missile’s altitude limitations and its tendency to lock onto any heat source, they moved their tactical air missions to higher altitudes. Wariness of the SA-7 also drove attack jets to higher ingress and egress speeds and higher drop altitudes. While the Strela-2 (SA-7a) was fired from behind the target, the Strela-2M (SA-7b), introduced in 1972, could home in on an aircraft engine cowling to engage incoming targets. Grails downed 10 AH-1 Cobras, dozens of UH-1 Hueys, one TA-4 Skyhawk and one AC-130.
The SA-7 is the reason all of today’s military helicopters have infrared warning and countermeasures equipment. Although long obsolete, the SA-7 Grail and its successors remain a threat to helicopters and tactical aircraft to this day.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.