The Russian Buk missile now established as the weapon that brought down Malaysia Flight 17 is the progeny of a Russian missile technology that has long challenged U.S. military might, particularly in the form of one system that in its durability and longevity proved to be the high-tech equivalent of the legendary low-tech AK-47 automatic rifle.
This weapon’s first kill was devastating to U.S. assumptions of its own military superiority at the peak of the Cold War.
On May 1, 1960, a U-2 spy plane operated by the CIA took off from an airbase in Peshawar, Pakistan. The existence of the U-2 was a secret. It had an unusual appearance created by its long, slender wings. These wings gave it the ability to fly at heights beyond 70,000 feet to the edge of the stratosphere, way above any other airplanes.
A small fleet of U-2s was deployed at several secret bases close to the borders of the Soviet Union. They were equipped with high-resolution cameras. In the era before spy satellites, the U-2s served as America’s crucial eyes from above. Their mission was to photograph critical Soviet military sites – airbases, missile launching sites, naval bases, large troop movements.
The U-2 that left Pakistan that day was piloted by a former Air Force captain, Francis Gary Powers. His target was Sverdlovsk in the Ukraine. As he reached operational altitude Powers felt invulnerable in his U-2, flying at a height well beyond the range of Soviet anti-aircraft artillery and at a height where the thin air made it impossible for fighter jets to intercept him.
But it was a false sense of security. Russian radar had spotted the U-2. Orders were given to use a new weapon, an S-75 Dvina surface-to-air missile, or SAM. Eight missiles were launched, and the first found its target. Powers had no chance to evade it, and bailed out as his U-2 spun down to earth.
The exposure of the U-2 spy missions created an international crisis. The Soviets paraded Powers as a prisoner. The U.S. was wrong-footed diplomatically and militarily humbled. The shock of finding that the U-2 was no longer invulnerable came only three years after Russia launched the first Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, and just a year before they sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin.
Soviet SAMs were to become one of the most formidable and feared adversaries in wars cold and hot. Indeed, the S-75 Dvina was soon to claim another U-2 at a moment when the U.S. and the Soviet Union veered closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time before or since.
On October 15, 1962, CIA analysts studied photographs of Cuba taken by several U-2 missions sent over the island after reports of a rapidly growing Soviet military presence. The pictures were alarming. They revealed that the Soviets were establishing launching sites for nuclear missiles that could reach major U.S. cities. That discovery triggered what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On October 27, a U-2 took off from McCoy Air Force base in Orlando, Florida. The pilot was USAF Major Rudolf Anderson. Other U-2 overflights of Cuba had been canceled after intelligence reports suggested that they would be intercepted, but Anderson’s went ahead because more hard information was urgently needed on the sites and state of readiness of the Soviet missiles.
Soon after Anderson crossed the Cuban coast his U-2 was detected by Soviet radar. There was confusion among Soviet commanders. They realized that their missile positions would be exposed, but also understood the profound implications of shooting down a U.S. airplane in the heat of the moment.
The senior Soviet commander could not be found and it was impossible to contact Moscow in the critical moments while the U-2 was within range. The decision to take out the U-2 was made alone by the deputy commander of the Soviet forces on the island.
An S-75 Dvina was fired and hit Anderson’s U-2 at high altitude; shrapnel from the explosion penetrated Anderson’s pressurized flying suit and it decompressed. He died rapidly from hypoxia.
The loss of Anderson enraged U.S. commanders. President Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, were holding off hawkish politicians and generals while trying to negotiate with Russia’s volatile leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In the end, Khrushchev backed down and, by a hair’s breadth, they avoided a nuclear war.
Five years later, another S-75 Dvina was fired at an airplane flown by a man who is at this moment a vocal and unforgiving critic of Vladimir Putin: John McCain.
In 1967, McCain was one of a squadron of Navy pilots flying A-4 Skyhawk light bombers from the deck of a small aircraft carrier called the Oriskany off the coast of Vietnam. On October 26 they were assigned to attack a power plant supplying the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.
These attacks were extremely dangerous. The North Vietnamese had formidable anti-aircraft defenses that combined artillery with mobile batteries of the S-75s supplied to the Vietcong by Russia. Experienced pilots had learned to develop a technique to evade the S-75s when an alarm in their cockpit warned of an imminent strike. It involved a violent maneuver in which their jets dived away from a missile’s path in the last seconds.
In his memoir, Faith of My Fathers, McCain describes how the alarm sounded as he was on his bombing run: “I was just about to release my bombs when the tone sounded, and had I started jinking [the evasive maneuver] would never have had the time nor, probably, the nerve to go back in once I had lost the SAM. So, at about 3,500 feet, I released my bombs, then pulled back the stick to begin a steep climb to a safer altitude. In the instant before my plane reacted, a SAM blew my right wing off. I was killed.”
McCain bailed out but was seriously injured. He spent more than five years in the execrable prison called, with exquisite irony, the Hanoi Hilton before being released and flown home.
By then the S-75 had earned a reputation similar to that of the ubiquitous AK-47 automatic rifle, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. It was robust, easy to move around, relatively simple to operate, and deadly in its accuracy.
The S-75 went on being the SAM of choice, deployed in all the eastern bloc countries under Soviet rule until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. It was the bulwark of communist Vietnam’s air defenses after the endof the U.S. war in Vietnam. The Russians also supplied it to both Egypt and Syria, and a version of it was produced by the Chinese.
In the movie of Tom Wolfe’s definitive tale of astronaut hubris, The Right Stuff, there’s a repeated motif of a spectral promethean figure representing the Soviet ascendancy in rocketry – the astronauts know they are expected to be spurred on by this fearful vision and that they must eventually whack him and all his works.
This was a mindset inspired by the Kennedy administration who, pressing for the money to go to the moon, alleged there was a “missile gap” between the USSR and the U.S. The missiles being counted were intercontinental, with nuclear warheads, not SAMs, and the “gap” did not exist – the U.S. actually had a substantial superiority in both the number and capacity of its ICBMS.
How things have changed. This is the 45th anniversary of the Apollo moon landings, a feat of rocketry that the Russians have never matched. Yet today’s NASA is a client of Russian technology. With the end of the Space Shuttle program, all missions carrying astronauts to the International Space Station depend on the Russian Soyuz capsule – another long-serving, dependable, and very basic machine. (Each Shuttle launch cost about $1.5 billion. A Soyuz launch is reckoned to cost about $45 million.) And the huge Atlas V rockets used by NASA and the U.S. military to launch larger satellites into space today are powered by a Russian rocket engine, the RD-180.
In critical ways, Russia remains technologically adept, but by its current behavior Russia is also revealed as morally destitute. The use of the Buk missile against a commercial airliner, whether by Russian surrogates or actually under Russian direction, is so repugnant that it has led to international condemnation. That makes the fact that Putin is in a position to decide the future of our own rocket launches and our ability to send astronauts into space highly embarrassing.