A shoulder-mounted Man Portable Air Defence System (MANPADS) manufactured by the Soviet Union and deployed in 1978. Its Russian designation is 9K34 Strela-3; it is the sequel to and a considerable development of the SA-7 Grail, previously the only man-portable SAM system the Soviet Union operated.

One of the main problems that had been encountered during operational use of the SA-7 was the ease with which its seeker got spoofed. It had been deployed during the 1977 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, during which it became clear that, like many early IR-guided missiles, it easily lost its lock to things like the Sun (a common problem with early heat seeking missiles), flares dropped by the target and even hills on hot days. Furthermore, the performance of the SA-7 precluded using it against pretty much anything except low, slow-flying targets like helicopters, UAVs and transport aircraft.

By the time the SA-14 came to be developed, times and technology had moved on, new technology increasingly outdating and outmatching the SA-7. When the U.S. supplied Stinger missiles to rebel soldiers in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union suffered devastating losses of Mi-24 helicopters, graphically eclipsing the performance of the SA-7 the rebels had been using previously.

Not only had missile technology moved on but so had aircraft technology and performance. Hitting targets like the F/A-18 Hornet, the F-111 and even some helicopters was a task for which the SA-7 was becoming outmoded. A new missile would have to be faster, more manouevrable and more discriminatory about its targets, given the new threats that mobile units could face on a battlefield. Sufficiently accomplished unit protection could force attackers higher, putting them within the purview of division-level air defences like the ZSU-23-4 and SA-11.

The SA-14 has greatly improved performance over its predecessor, with greater resistance to countermeasures and increased range and speed. The components of the system are a missile tube and gripstock with primitive optical sight, a thermal battery or gas reservoir and a 9M36/9M36-1 missile. It uses a lead sulphide seeker head cooled by liquid nitrogen, which is mainly responsible for its improved accuracy and more flexible targeting over the SA-7.

A further problem suffered by early IR missiles was their poor ability to lock onto targets from multiple angles; early models of the Sidewinder air to air missile, for example, were very unreliable if fired at an aircraft from the front, instead of at the heat bloom of their exhausts at the rear. The SA-7 also had this problem and the 10kg 9M36 improves upon it, allowing the operator to attack targets from a wider range of angles including a head-to-head confrontation. Furthermore the time from acquisition to firing has reduced by up to 10 seconds over the SA-7, depending on the conditions. The SA-14 system may engage targets from 500 metres away (a 100m improvement over the SA-7) at altitudes of 18 metres to 4.5km or about 14,500ft. It uses the same solid fuel propulsion but its range is extended by 500m. The missile has almost identical dimensions to the SA-7 and its 10kg high explosive fragmentation warhead is actually very slightly smaller than its predecessor. Detonation occurs on a contact fuse, the missile designed to very slightly alter its trajectory on the terminal phase of an interception so that it strikes the center, rather than the rear of a target.

Recognition of the system isn't the simplest, given that the four Russian-made MANPADS systems in existence look very similar. In fact the gripstocks of the SA-7 and SA-14 appear to be identical, just with slightly different attaching parts. In this case it is the attachment in front of the supporting grip (itself in front of the firing handle). The SA-7 has a short cylinder housing for the thermal battery, attached to the front of the supporting grip with a protrusion from its centre. The SA-14 has a spherical thermal battery or gas reservoir in front of the supporting grip.

FAS rather unhelpfully lists the SA-14's proliferation as 'worldwide', but a bit of delving reveals it to have been used during conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and by so-called insurgents during both invasions of Iraq. In December 2003, according to Aljazeera, a DHL cargo aircraft taking off from Baghdad airport was shot by an SA-14, though it was able to land safely. It was also suggested one might have been responsible for the explosion off Long Island of TWA 800, though this has been discredited.

The SA-14 also has a naval variant, designated SA-N-8 Gremlin.

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Thanks to The Custodian for the correction.

  • Pike, John; "sa-14 gremlin / strela--3 9k34";
    <http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/sa-14.htm> (statistics)
  • Aljazeera.net; "Nine die in US chopper crash in Iraq";