Air Defense: The Other Danger In Mali


August 16, 2014: Among the many types of military assistance Mali has received since France led a NATO effort to clear Islamic terrorists out of northern Mali in 2012 was help in disposing of long held, but unused, weapons and ammo received from Russia (then the USSR) during the Cold War. This included 85 SA-3 surface to air missiles and 60 tons of other ancient munitions. Each of the SA-3 missiles contains over half a ton of explosives, in the form of the rocket motor and warhead. The older these things get the more chemically unstable and dangerous they become. Oddly enough while Mali never became a regular user of the SA-3, this fifty year old design is still in service elsewhere.

The 1960s era SA-125 (NATO called it the SA-3 Goa) surface-to-air missile system has a basic design that is old but it has been frequently updated since its introduction in the 1960s. The two stage SA-125 missile weighs nearly a ton and carries a 59 kg (130 pound) warhead against targets up to  35 kilometers away (and altitudes as high as 18,000 meters). There is also a smaller missile, weighing closer to half a ton, with a range of 15 kilometers. Having two different size missiles for the same system is a common practice with the Russians (and some other nations as well, like the U.S. Patriot system).

Users have upgraded or modified their SA-125 missiles and radars themselves over the years. The most notable example of this was in Serbia, in 1999, where a missile battery commander used SA-125s to shoot down a U.S. F-117 stealth aircraft. He did this by using human observers often and his radar rarely. Since the SA-125 can be controlled (flown) by a ground operator, once the F-117 was located, an SA-125 missile was launched and flown manually to the target. This was simple and effective and largely immune to countermeasures. This feat gave SA-125 sales a shot in the arm, and the Russians opened a new factory to meet the demand (worth over $250 million). But nations don't buy the inexpensive, and reliable, SA-125 because one took down a stealth fighter. No, the missile provides basic air defense against neighbors who don't have high-end aircraft with good electronic defenses. The SA-125 provides basic air defense and keeps aerial smugglers, and secretive users of UAVs, nervous. Most SA-3 users, including Russia, retired their SA-3 systems by the 1990s. But a few countries continue to use them and Russia continues to support and upgrade existing SA-3 systems.



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