Hezbollah Reportedly Acquires SA-18 SAMs
According to a report in the Israeli daily Maa'riv early last month, the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has acquired highly sophisticated SA-18 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Acquisition of the Russian-manufactured SA-18, a much improved version of the SA-7 missiles used by Hezbollah in the past and employed by Al-Qaeda last November to attack an Israeli airliner in Kenya, would vastly upgrade the movement's air defense capabilities and strengthen the threat emanating from its massive stockpile of rockets capable of hitting Israeli population centers.
As the militant Islamist group accelerated its rocket buildup in 2002, Syria ordered a large shipment of SA-18s from Russia with the apparent intention of transferring them to Hezbollah. Following several trips to Russia by Israeli National Security Advisor Ephraim Halevy and a state visit by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in late September, Israel announced that Russia had canceled the sale. However, the UAE daily Al-Bayan reported that Hezbollah had already received a "first installment" of SA-18 missiles earlier in the year.
Hezbollah's air defenses have previously been limited to anti-aircraft artillery and SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles. While there have been some reports in the past that Hezbollah has received the SA-14 (an improved version of the SA-7), there have been no confirmed firings of this missile in south Lebanon.
The SA-18 is vastly superior to the SA-7. Its 2-kg chemical energy fragmentation warhead is larger and more lethal than that of the SA-7, while aerodynamic improvements give it a greater maximum range (5200 meters) and altitude (3500 meters). Its higher speed enables the SA-18 to hit faster targets. The SA-18's enhanced seeker allows it to be fired at much broader angles than the SA-7 and greatly reduces the missile's vulnerability to both heat flares and electro-optical jammers.
Whereas the SA-7 is aimed exclusively by focusing on the exhaust of an aircraft's engines and can therefore hit airplanes only from behind (a serious limitation given its lower speed), the SA-18's guidance system employs proportional convergence logic, allowing it to home in on airframe radiation, rather than isolated hot spots (e.g. engines, exhaust pipes), and has an optical aiming mechanism. As a result, unlike the SA-7, the SA-18 can hit aerial targets head-on.
Due to the mobility and size of Hezbollah's rocket arsenal - up to 10,000, according to some estimates - the deployment of SA-18s would be a major strategic development, as it would substantially impair the ability of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to conduct low-altitude bombing and reconnaissance missions in south Lebanon and the Syrian-controlled Beqaa Valley.
The greatest concern in Israel, however, is that Hezbollah will use the missiles to target civilian airliners. Last year, the state-run military research and development firm Rafael unveiled plans to release a commercial adaptation of its Aero-Gem anti-missile system, which is used on IAF military helicopters and transport aircraft. After the failed November 28 Al-Qaeda attack in Kenya, when two SA-7 missiles narrowly missed an Israeli Boeing 757, Rafael began a crash program to develop the system by mid-2003. The system, called Britening and priced at about $1.5 million, uses a directed infrared beam to disrupt the approaching missile's seeker. Other commercial anti-missile systems, using flares and other countermeasures, are also under development in Israel.
 Maa'riv, 1 March 2003.
 The Jerusalem Post, 29 October 2002.
 Al-Bayan, 30 September 2002.