Smokey Sam

You’re probably aware of the history that lead to the creation of TOPGUN (one word, all caps). Basically, concern over the kill ratio between the US and the North Vietnamese caused the Navy to establish a graduate school in fighter combat.* Large resources went into making sure our fighter pilots could defeat the gomers in air to air combat.

Funny thing, though. The North Vietnamese fighters were responsible for a relatively small portion of our losses in aircraft during the war. Guns and surface to air missiles were the bigger threat. And very little in the way of institutional training was devoted to defeating that threat. Sure, technical innovations like jamming pods, and the EA-6B Prowler helped. And in the field, pilots quickly devised techniques to defeat the threat.  One key item of a technical nature was RHAWS, the Radar Homing and Warning System, that alerted the aircrew that radars were illuminating their aircraft. RHAWS would provide a variety of visual and audible indications for tracking, lock-on, and missile launch warning.  So an aircrew might know when it was being attacked by a missile (or tracked by gun laying radar).

Eventually, the Air Force counterpart to TOPGUN, Red Flag evolved from an air to air scenario to a full air campaign involving just about every type of aircraft in the Air Force. And to make the exercises out of Nellis AFB more realistic, a variety of simulated ground threats were developed. Shooting real SAMs at our own planes is frowned upon, but the electronic indications could be duplicated at reasonable cost.

While fielding an entire Soviet style air defense network on the range complexes near Nellis was not an option, low cost multi-band emitters could be designed.

But what about the threat of infrared guided, shoulder launched missiles? The only practical way to avoid those was to spot the launch, and use flares and violent maneuvers to avoid being hit. Since, again, shooting real missiles at our own planes would prove unpopular, something else had to be done.

And thanks to a bright individual at Red Flag, Robert A. McLellan, the answer was soon clear. Since we couldn’t shoot missiles at our planes, we should shoot rockets!


At first McLellan had hoped to use commercially available components from model rockets to build a training device. In the event, though, new build components were used. And thus was born the Smokey SAM.

Technically designated the GTR-18**, the Smokey SAM is beefed up version of the sort of model rocket you can buy in any hobby shop. It’s made of cardboard and styrofoam, and has a solid rocket that emits quite a bit of smoke. Smokey SAMs are fired from the ground to simulate the visual signature of a SAM launch.

GTR-18s ready to launch Philippines 1984.JPEG

They aren’t generally supposed to be launched directly at airplanes, for safety’s sake. But their styrofoam construction means that in the event one does hit a plane, damage is likely to be minor, if any.

The GTR-18 is still in use. Today it features a longer burning motor, giving it a more realistic boost/sustain profile.

Here are some being set up.


It can also be integrated with the AN/PVQ-1 Tactical Threat Radar Generator, which, while not really a radar system per se, can transmit threat radar signals in various bands to closely mimic a typical threat radar system.

Here’s a link to a site that describes several of the various systems used to provide realistic threat simulation on training ranges.



*I know, I know, Ault Report, AIMVAL, ACEVAL, look, that’s not the topic here.

**GTR-18 Ground Launched, Training device, Rocket (unguided), 18th unguided rocket system  under the tri-service designation system.

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