The SA-8 is made to shoot aircraft down. As a pilot it's automatically not on my Christmas card list. My first and several subsequent encounters with it occurred while flying an AH-64D Apache Longbow during a military campaign in Azerbaijan. For one particular mission, myself and my wingman were tasked with providing air cover to a column of advancing armour. This consisted mainly of a platoon of M-1 tanks with accompanying supply trucks and Hummvee-based air defence vehicles. We were to escort them from one point to another. To make sure they didn't get blown up.

According to the mission briefing there was a certain amount of armour at or near the rallying point and at least one SAM site (much more dangerous to us, the helo pilots, than the units we were protecting), although we didn't know what type. In the undulating territory, danger from hidden SAMs was high and the approach generally a cautious one. Our nemeses, the SA-9s, SA-13s and SA-10s in particular liked to sit on the sides or tops of hills where they could see lots of shit.

A large portion of our route for this mission was enclosed within a high-sided valley so we were more worried about being boxed in if enemy helicopters attacked us. We would also be quite vulnerable when leaving the valley, crossing the flat terrain that followed. A large hill separated our two final waypoints and that could've hidden anything. There's only so much you can discern about terrain from a reconnaissance photograph and quite a lot left to discern when you get there.

The traversal of the valley was smooth enough - the two of us flew low, halfway up one side to make it easier to detect and hit any threats on the other side and make it more difficult for any threats on our side to attack us. Other than a brief buzzing from an Su-25 nothing much happened while during that part of the mission, though. A few radar sweeps of the ground on either side of the valley exit revealed only ground clutter so I told my wingman to hang tight and cover the armour while I skipped over to the hill that blocked our final waypoint.

Satisfied the approach was clear for now, I ordered him to follow the ground units as they approached.

Turning back towards our final waypoint, we began rounding the hill roughly in the middle: dark-coloured combat helos blend well with hillside vegetation. The two of us stopped short of the hill boundary as seen from our previous waypoint.

Ordering my wingman to hang back, I gently pushed the control stick forwards and climbed slowly as my copilot activated the Longbow's mast-mounted radar. I set one of my two cockpit displays to show any radar contacts and edged the Longbow forward scanning ground behind the hill. At length, I halted and continued to climb, rotating slowly as I did to let the radar 'see' as much ground as possible. No radar contacts appeared and a quick sweep in the radar's air to air mode showed nothing more in the skies. We were good, for now.

I still didn't want to stay there. Too risky. To see behind a conical hill without actually going behind it you can either go around it far enough to see behind it, you can sideslip from behind it until you can see behind it, or you can go so high that you can see what's behind it. All expose you to attack from various angles, and that last option would light you up on every radar for 50 miles. Keep in mind these were the safe options.

Before dropping back to relative safety I noted the terrain in view: another hill roughly the same size as the one I was currently hugging the side of was almost straight ahead, joined to my hill by a large ridge angled slightly to the right. Further to the left the hill continued around in a wide curve, sides getting steeper as it did, making a small arc-shaped valley between the two hills. There also appeared to be a ridge near to the bottom of the hill where it curved round but it was difficult to see at the distance. Between the two ridges and the bases of the two hills was a fairly flat area perhaps the size of a football field. I dropped back to 20ft above the ground, doing a quick 360 on the way down to scan the ground behind us. Clear, and our ground units were closing unfettered.

We needed to get closer to this unknown quantity that we ultimately had to access. This was another place SAMs liked to hide, behind or between ridges. I knew the nearest ridge had at least one clear side because we'd scanned it, so decided to use it to circumvent the aforementioned options. I was hanging halfway up the hill at about 30ft, facing past its side. I began a gradual descent and pushed the stick to the right; my Longbow slowly sideslipped down the hill. Once I was just below the spine of the ridge ahead of me I halted my descent then straightened up, increasing forward speed but keeping close to the side of the hill. Arriving behind the ridge I stopped and ordered my wingman to join me, my copilot keeping up radar scans of his six as he approached.

Once his Apache flanked me I turned back to face our mutual waypoint - now just a ridge away - and slowly increased lift. My helicopter slowly rose up from behind the ridge, me keeping an eye on the radar readouts as the radar seeker symbol bounced from one side of my heads up display to the other, as the radar tirelessly scanned the terrain. This time a mark popped up on the screen: an upright triangle, indicating a missile site of some sort. From the distance it appeared to be behind the second ridge I had seen earlier.

The threat indicator screen automatically popped up on my left-hand cockpit display as radar emissions from the missile site were detected. It showed a plan view of my current situation, indicating radar commonly associated with the SA-8 just under one kilometre ahead. The dotted circle that surrounded its glowing green avatar indicated both its scanning range and the fact it was just in search mode and hadn't detected me.

Fair enough, but it was still just a blip on a screen and I have this dangerous penchant for wanting to see what I'm about to blow up. For one thing it helps with that whole thing of not blowing your own stuff up, although it's hardly the safest practice for a helo pilot. My copilot quickly set to identifying the target and set my right-hand cockpit display to show the output from the Longbow's targeting system. It was getting too dark for the targetting cameras so the Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera was activated.

All I could see as I looked at the small readout on my cockpit display was a superimposed triangle, indicating the position of the detected SAM beyond some featureless ground; the ridge I thought I had seen earlier was in fact there and was obscuring the contact. I ordered my wingman to cover me from air threats then ascended slightly further so the nose-mounted cameras could see what the radar mounted on the rotor mast had just seen.

As the top of the far ridge dropped away, the camera view changed to show what to all intents and purposes could have been a small boat - the IR display showed only a hull-shaped silhouette with three semicircular protrusions on the "keel". My copilot shortly inverted the display polarity to show a "white-hot" picture created by the object's heat emissions. Details now showed up - a boat-shaped vehicle with six wheels roughly evenly spaced. A missile tray was on either side of a central turret with radar receivers on the front and back. Quite distinctive. No ID markings, but the equipment was Russian.

A second or so later, a rapid bleeping sound filled the cockpit, quickly turning to a solid tone as the Longbow's threat warning system indicated that the radar had locked onto me. Electronic countermeasures had automatically activated but I couldn't count on them to eliminate the chances of the SA-8 getting me. I had to either blow it up or run away and be quick, as the SAM's turret had already snapped around to face me. Reducing lift I descended again, giving some attention to my HUD which showed my gunner's instant reaction: Hellfires missiles armed, set to fire and forget mode. No control adjustment was necessary by me to get the SAM inside the missile's large targeting box as we descended, but I bucked the Longbow's nose up slightly so the Hellfire wouldn't plough into the earth in front of us, just before my gunner fired it.

The vortex from the Longbow's right wing twisted the Hellfire's smoke plume as we descended through it and came to rest next to our wingman. Several seconds later the ensuing explosion, audible from our almost 1km away, inferred a successful kill. In confirmation the corresponding SAM triangle disappeared from the threat warning display and as I bobbed up slightly I saw the thick black ropes of smoke rise from debris flying down the hillside.

Then came the rookie mistake. The platoon we were guarding was bearing down on us and we had little time left to clear the area. Pushing the control stick right forward and overtorquing the twin engines, I dipped the nose and swooped forward over the ridge, wingman in tow, quickly increasing speed and descending to about 30ft above the "football field". Passing 80kts and rapidly approaching the second ridge, the threat warning system bleeped insistently again. Switching the threat warning display to its minimum range setting, I saw another SAM triangle frighteningly close.

Behind me.

I barely registered my gunner switching back over to the camera targeting system to acquire as quickly as possible as I tugged the control stick back hard and chopped the lift to almost nothing; my Longbow ramped skyward, quickly losing momentum because of its flattening rotor blades. Approaching the apex of the climb at almost seventy degrees I centred the control stick, increased lift and stamped on the Longbow's right rudder pedal, turning to face the ground we had covered. As I turned, the targeting cameras snapped to the right to acquire a target which, in the brief instant I was able to glance at the targeting system output on my right display, looked similar to the one I just destroyed.

The Longbow descended back in a pendulum motion as I overtorqued the engines again and pulled the control stick back to keep the helicopter aloft. I turned my $20 million AH-64D Apache Longbow with its seven Hellfire missiles, 38 Hydra rockets, four Stinger missiles and 1600 30mm cannon rounds back to face a second SA-8 vehicle at the base of the ridge I'd just crossed, just as it fired a ten-foot spear of explosive death straight into my face.


Pilot "Archie" has died. Do you wish to save?


The SA-8 is a surface to air missile system (Russian designation 9K33 "Osa") developed by the USSR in the late 1960s and deployed there and in at least 25 other countries from about 1975 onwards, which is when it first showed up in a May Day Parade.

The SA-8 was another first for the USSR in more ways than one: it was the first SAM vehicle with amphibious capabilities and it was the Soviet Union's first autonomous SAM system (not including the SA-7, which is a man-portable SAM). The SA-4 and SA-6 were both more independent than their predecessors but the SA-8 requires no external support other than an ammunition supply vehicle. The individual SA-8 vehicles all carry their own targeting, tracking, launching and guidance systems.

Developed by the Grushin Design Bureau, The SA-8 continued the extensive range of short-range battlefield SAMs, either because the existing medium and long-range systems (the SA-5, SA-3 and SA-2) were considered to provide satisfactory strategic defence, or because the need for short-range tactical air defence was considered more pressing. This certainly seems so because development of anti-aircraft missile systems continued in this vein into the future, with few major variations in design objectives.

As with the vast majority of SAMs the SA-8 is slaved to its launch vehicle, which is the most distinctive out of the missile systems developed by the Soviet Union by that point. This Transporter Erector Launcher And Radar (TELAR) is a six-wheeled vehicle with wedge-shaped ends, just a little longer than an SA-4 missile at 9.14m long. The vehicle is steered by both the front and rear wheels, which together with the fat tyres gives it good manoeuvrability and cross country capabilities.

Atop the hull is a 360º rotating launch pad with two separate missile launchers and the missile guidance systems fitted to it. The first version of the vehicle, as well as having a blunter nose, had open missile trays on the turret which held four missiles between them instead of the most-recognised version's capacity of six (the single published photograph of an SA-8 at a May Day Parade appears to show this first version). This later version also encloses the missiles, and has a more boat-shaped body.

A hatch just behind the windscreen of the vehicle is the only access for the four crew; a compartment at the front houses the driver (who has access to a fitted infrared night vision system) and commander, with the rear of the vehicle providing space for the remaining two and the 200bhp diesel engine which, impressively, is able to drive this 17.5 ton vehicle up a 60% gradient. Range of this TELAR is 500km +/- at a maximum 50mph or 2 hours' constant operation at a standstill, much improved over previous launch vehicles (likely due to the reduced weight resulting from the virtual dearth of armour). When fording the SA-8 is powered by two water jets at the rear of the hull and moves at about 5mph.

The vehicle's Land Roll radar is an integrated system, working off several receivers and transmitters mounted on the launch platform. An elliptical, rotating receiver mounted to the rear of the missile tubes acquires targets from up to 35km away and once they are within range, passes them to the largest component of the system, the monopulse tracking radar. This is a tall, slightly convex, roughly rectangular antenna mounted behind the crew access hatch. This is attached to the same rotating turret as the missile tubes. This antenna can track targets within 20-25km of the vehicle. On either side of it are two smaller, circular antennas which are part of the system (which comprises a further four small antennas) that guides and tracks a missile after it is launched.

These two dishes can control one missile each, meaning a volley of two missiles can be fired against any given target and more usefully, can be guided on separate frequencies from one another. This makes it more difficult for the target to effectively use ECM against incoming missiles. To further this end, the SA-8 vehicle also has a TV video tracking system to guide missiles without using the radar at all; also useful if there is a risk of aircraft in the area using anti-radiation missiles and the crew wish to limit radar emissions.

The missile itself went through three iterations from issue, retaining the same profile throughout. A 9M33 missile is 3.1m long, 21cm wide, with two sets of clipped delta fins. Four just short of the nose steer the missile and the four at the rear provide stabilisation. Two of those contain transponders for tracking purposes. Initially able to engage targets from 25m to 10km at speeds up to mach 2.4, the last modification extends that range by 5km and has the same effective altitude of about 5km. The latest 9M33 carries a 19kg high explosive fragmentation warhead against the 15kg warhead carried by the original, at the same speed. The warhead detonates either on a proximity fuse or by remote control.

The SA-8 also has a naval variant, designated SA-N-4 Gecko.

<<SA-7 Grail | Index | SA-9 Gaskin>>

So I guess you realise none of that actually happened. The "account" is probably copyright Electronic Arts, circa 1997 or something. I'm not a pilot. I have never flown or so much as sat in the cockpit of an AH-64, have never been to Azerbaijan and have certainly never been shot down. But try to take me on on Jane's Longbow 2 and I'll whop yo' ass.

Many thanks to The Custodian for consulting (consorting?) with me on this node.

  • Electronic Arts (publisher); Jane's Longbow 2 & Reference Manual
  • Pike, John; "SA-8 GECKO / 9K33 Osa";
  • N.A.S.O.G; "SA-8 GECKO";
  • Zonto, Ioanni; "SA-8 GECKO 9K33M3 Osa-AKM";
  •; "SA-8 Gecko SAM";
  • (Author unknown); "SA-8 (?Gecko?) ZRK-SD Romb Strela 3";
  • Missile Index; "SA-8/SA-N-4 Gecko";
  • (Author unknown); "SA-8 'Gecko' (9M33 Osa)";

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