On October 4, 2001, a Sibir Airlines Tupolev Tu-154 flying from Novosibirsk to Tel Aviv exploded over the Black Sea, killing all passengers and crew.
Reports of terrorism were not refuted by the subsequent investigation's early findings: the pilot of an Antonov An-24 airliner in the area at the time reported seeing an explosion aboard the plane and another explosion after it fell into the sea. The recovery operation reported that parts of the wreckage had 'bullet-like' holes in them. However, later into the investigation a US official stated that a satellite of theirs had detected "the launch of a missile [in the area] at almost precisely the same time the airliner went down."
With knowledge that a Ukrainian military exercise was taking place on the shores of the Black Sea, the theory was floated that the Tu-154 had been accidentally shot down by a Ukrainian missile. Although initially Ukraine vehemently denied that this was anything to do with them (in fact they initially claimed that their exercises had not even begun until 90 minutes after the airliner exploded) and continued to do so until the 9th, wreckage found by a Russian investigative team appeared to match parts of a missile of the type being used in Ukraine's exercise. The US DoD also released a statement that it had intercepted telemetry data from a missile that had veered off course. Further, a radar station on Russia's Black Sea coast reported its airspace was penetrated by a flying object with no transponder signal. It seemed and after the investigation concluded was agreed, that the incident was the work of an overzealous Ukrainian SA-5 missile.
The SA-5 is a surface to air missile (Russian designation S-200; also called 5V28 "Volga") system produced by the USSR and deployed there somewhere between 1963 and 1967. Russia currently still use it, as do several other nations including Syria, Ukraine, North Korea and Libya.
The SA-5 seems to have been designed to replace the SA-1; the specifications it sets out to fulfil are similar but it is far more accomplished in achieving them (understandably so - the SA-1 was a design getting on for 10 years old by the time the SA-5 was introduced). It is a semi-fixed medium to long-range system, designed to intercept incoming cruise missiles, cruise missile launchers (i.e. B-52s) and in particular, surveillance and AWACS aircraft. It is likely that a specific goal in the design was to create a missile fast enough to catch the SR-71, which was able to outrun all Soviet SAMs in production when it was introduced.
All SA-5s are able to carry a 215kg high explosive fragmentation warhead, but as with the line of SA-1s, one variant exists (the SA-5B) that can carry a nuclear warhead. This is intended for use against massed aircraft and has the added bonus of increasing the missile's effective altitude by ten to twenty thousand feet due to the increased blast radius. The SA-5 is able to hit targets as low as 30m and as high as 40km, at speeds up to mach 4. Under ideal conditions (although it's debatable how often those occur) it has a 95% hit probability.
The missile is 10.9m long and 48cm across. Size apart, it looks not unlike a less symmetrical AIM-54 Phoenix - Four long delta wings along the centre of the missile provide stabilisation and antennae, and four small slightly swept fins at the rear steer it. It is launched by four solid fuel booster rockets, similar to the SA-4. These jettison 60km from the launch point, at which point the main solid fuel rocket motor takes over, flying it a maximum of about 180 miles before burning out. Similar to the SA-3 and SA-4, an SA-5 only has terminal guidance, which activates as it nears its target. Until that point it relies on guidance signals from the battery's Square Pair radar, which tracks targets passed to it by the battery's Barlock target acquisition radar. Battalion headquarters backs up the radar of each individual battery with a Side Net height-finding radar and Squat Eye or Tall King long-range target acquisition radars (a Back Net radar also fits into all this somehow - if someone could explain this to me I'll incorporate it). The missile detonates either on a proximity fuse or by remote control (the only method of detonating a nuclear SA-5).
Looking at the specifications, the only real weakness of the SA-5 is its medium and short range capabilities, which are nonexistent. A target has little to fear from an SA-5 battery much less than 60km away: any missile launched at it will probably arrive before its boosters have completed their burn, hurtling blindly past at mach 3 or more. The missile will be some distance away, flying in the opposite direction at at least mach 4 before its boosters jettison and any form of guidance takes over, by which point the engagement is probably a lost cause.
However, as part of a unified air defence system partnering the SA-2 and SA-3 as well as close-range anti aircraft guns, it can be very successful. Such a system progressively breaks up and destroys any air attackers attempting to reach the point of defence. The SA-5s would engage the targets at extreme range (the later modifications getting better at this, particularly those that have the rather amusingly-termed Electronic Countermeasure Countermeasures, or ECCM, fitted), leaving any that escape the initial hail of death to be weakened further by the SA-2 batteries, with SA-3s mopping up as they got closer still.
What seems to have happened in the case of the unfortunate Russian airliner is that an SA-5 was fired at a target drone which it either missed, or was beaten to by another SA-5. At this point, the missile continued flying in what happened to be the general direction of the airliner, with an active seeker head (for some reason it did not self-destruct, as SAMs are generally supposed to if they miss their target). At length, it acquired the airliner, intercepted it and detonated on its proximity fuse, probably within 50 feet of it. A tragic coincidence.
Note: SA-5 is actually a reused NATO reporting name: it originally referred to the Russian V-1000 Anti Ballistic Missile system, introduced in 1963 and retired the following year for unknown reasons. The SA-5 (as described here) is apparently considered to be a "highly modified version of it".
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Expect minor inaccuracies due to the remote subject matter; if you know any different to what is written here, please /msg me and I will correct it.
- Pike, John; "S-200 SA-5 GAMMON";
- Trendafilovski, Vladimir; "RZ-25 Anti-Ballistic Missile System";
- Felstead, Peter; "Ukrainian missile was culprit in Black Sea shoot-down";
- (Author not specified); "Did You Know";
- Strategic Forecasting; "Syria";
- Grau, Lester W. & Kipp, Jacob W.; "Maintaining Friendly Skies; Rediscovering Theater Aerospace Defense";