A short-range, low-altitude surface to air missile system designed and built by the Soviet Union (Russian designation is 9K35M Strela-10M) in the early 1970s, deployed in 1975. You may have seen one recently in the film Behind Enemy Lines, which in a very contrived (though quite exhilarating) sequence, shows one shooting down an F/A-18 Hornet in the Balkans.

The Gopher is the intended replacement for the rather low-tech SA-9 Gaskin, which was only vehicle-mounted because the missiles it used (the 9M31M - successor to the shoulder-launched SA-7) were too heavy for a soldier to carry. The Gopher has the same mission as the SA-9: theatre defence of front-line assets (troops, armour etc) from low-flying targets such as fighter-bombers, helicopters, drone aircraft and guided munitions such as cruise missiles and LGBs.

In a style that Sony blatantly copied some forty years later with the Playstation 2, the SA-13 is backwards compatible with its predecessor. The TEL can carry the standard 9M37/9M37M/9M333 missiles but also supports the 9M31M missiles used by the SA-9. The idea is that the cheaper missiles be used for 'easier' targets and the more sophisticated native missiles be used for the rest; individual TELs can carry a mixture of the two types if required. There is also a photograph from 1999 of a Gopher with an octuplet of man-portable SAM launchers attached to the turret in place of regular missile trays. It is unclear what these are since they do not look like any known Russian MANPADS systems. They look most similar to SA-7 launchers but it is unlikely such old missiles would be used; they are more likely SA-16s, since these were produced in variants intended for vehicular mounting.

SA-13 missiles are able to lock onto targets flying at up to mach 1.25, although their top speed is mach 2. They are just over two metres long and 40cm wide, with a high explosive fragmentation warhead fitted. The missiles perform their own guidance, using either a cryogenically-cooled infrared seeker (9M37 or 9M37M missiles) or a combination of photocontrast and infrared seekers (9M333 missiles). They have 3kg and 5kg warheads respectively. Unsurprisingly they don't look much like the missile shown in the recent film, nor do they blow their outer covers off just prior to hitting the target and fire lots of nasty-looking spikes at it. They have a maximum range of 5km and are effective at altitudes of between 800m and 3,500m. Detonation is on a proximity fuse, which can be set to fire up to four metres from the target.

The armoured TEL (transporter-erector launcher) uses a modified MT-LBu amphibious chassis with two internal crew positions, and a third on the rear of the vehicle for the launch operator. The 240hp diesel engine gives a top speed of about 40mph on land and about 2-3mph on water, for which it uses water jets at the rear and two stowable pontoons mounted on either side of the vehicle. The launcher itself is a 360°-rotating and -5° - 80°-elevating turret, which can be stowed flat on the top of the vehicle for transit. The turret can hold up to four individual missile 'boxes'. The missiles come in sealed containers, much like those of the SA-10 and the SA-12. Targeting is done by four Flat Box passive antennae, depending on the TEL version, of which there are two. TELAR-1 (as designated by the US Army) has these antennae, TELAR-2 does not.

SA-13 launchers only perform cursory target acquisition if they are capable, intended only to prevent missile wastage against targets impossible to hit. A Dog Ear radar mounted on an MT-LBu vehicle at battalion headquarters performs target acquisition and tracking duties, passing targets to the individual launchers. It is also capable of directing the turrets of individual TELs against particular targets. Individual batteries can be remotely controlled by their commanders using some kind of wireless control box which has, amongst other things, a big red button. Said box is also seen in the recent Hollywood actioner.

A typical air defence regiment incorporating SA-13s would use four SA-13 batteries, four ZSU-23-4 mobile anti-aircraft batteries, several command post vehicles and a Flat Box targeting and tracking radar. This radar can also service ZSUs, as well as nearby SA-9s, though more recent ZSUs all have their own radars. The excellent mobility of all systems enables them to move with the fighting force across most kinds of terrain.

The SA-13 has seen considerable export success worldwide, the Soviet Union quite enthusiastically marketing the system to friendly countries much as the U.S. has done with, say, its Patriot and Stinger missile systems. SA-13s are or were in service in Croatia, Afghanistan, Belarus, India, Slovakia and Ukraine amongst others. They have seen action in Chad, Angola, Iraq during Desert Storm (in which it was integrated with Soviet-supplied radars and ZSU-23-4 batteries), and most recently Serbia during the NATO conflict in the former Yugoslavia. They were reportedly very effective at downing unmanned reconnaissance vehicles during this. The system's biggest asset is its quick response time which enables it to attack a target within seconds of detection, something I learnt to my cost during many games of Longbow 2.

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  • Pike, John; "SA-13 GOPHER ZRK-BD Strela-10"; <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/sa-13.htm>
  • Taos Industries, Inc; "SA-13 GOPHER Low Altitude Surface-to-air Missile System"; <http://www.taos-inc.com/airdef.htm#sa-13>
  • O'Halloran, Jim & Foss, Chris; (editors); "Jane's Land-based Air Defence: Yearbook 2003-2004"; published by Jane's Information Group; ISBN 0710625510
  • Rakshak, Bharat; "Strela-10M3 (SA-13 Gopher)"; <http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/LAND-FORCES/Army/SA-13.html>