Key point: There are two ways we could measure overall air defense missile lethality: by number of aircraft actually shot down, and by estimated effectiveness.
The use of ground-based missiles to engage planes and defend air space is a relatively recent phenomenon. First explored by Germany in World War II, all the major powers quickly raced to develop them in the postwar period. The first confirmed kill by a surface-to-air missile was in 1959.
The size and scope of surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, which restrict vehicle-mounted SAMs to standing armies, means that their use was restricted to conventional wars. As a result, SAM use has been generally infrequent, with the exception of the Arab-Israeli Wars, the Vietnam War, and other conflicts with conventional forces on both sides.
The rise of man-portable air defenses (MANPADS), shoulder-fired systems capable of engaging low-flying aircraft, has extended their use to guerrillas, terrorists, and other nonstate actors. These highly mobile, concealable missiles have been used to target both military and civilian aircraft, in war and peacetime. The proliferation of MANPADS is on a troubling uptick, as instability in Syria and Libya cause both to lose control of their missile arsenals.
There are two ways we could measure overall air defense missile lethality: by number of aircraft actually shot down, and by estimated effectiveness. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use both. Thanks to advances in electronics, missiles are always getting more effective and can defend against many different air-based threats, so it would be easy to load up the list with the latest and (theoretically) best systems. That, however, would neglect some older missiles that have proven effective in the past.
SA-75 “Dvina” (NATO: SA-2 Guideline)
First mention on this list goes not to the most modern missile, but the longest lived. Designed in 1953, the SA-75 “Dvina” surface-to-air missile has been in continuous operation worldwide for more than fifty years.
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