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The Air War Resumes
by James Dunnigan
November 26, 2013

On October 30th, an Israeli air strike near the Syrian naval base at Latakia destroyed a shipment of Russian SA-125 missiles being shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The 1970s 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 40 years ago. The two stage SA-125 missile weighs nearly a ton and carries a 59 kg (130 pound) warhead against targets 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 air forces. The SA-125 provides basic air defense and keeps aerial smugglers, and secretive users of UAVs, nervous. The SA-125 would not halt Israeli air operations in Lebanon but would require more effort to take out the SA-125s before major air attacks.



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