Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Hunt for Russia’s Super New Anti-Aircraft Weapon (SA-24)

Via Wired.com (Danger Room) -

One of the most prized acquisitions for the U.S. military could be a Russian-made missile.

At last month’s Moscow air show, Russia proudly displayed the Igla-S, its latest generation man-portable air defense system, or Manpads, which it is selling to foreign customers. The shoulder-fired missile is proving a hot commodity on the international market, and a major concern to the U.S. government because of the threat it poses to commercial and military aircraft. The irony is that the United States is desperately afraid that other countries will get their hands on the Igla-S (also known as the SA-24), even though the United States is having problems acquiring one for itself.

The Pentagon and the intelligence community rarely talk about their efforts to acquire foreign weapons, which they use to understand adversaries’ capabilities and to develop countermeasures. Going under the innocuous sounding name of “Foreign Materiel Acquisition,” the Pentagon essentially funds arms dealers to go forth and find foreign technology for the U.S. military — and acquire it by whatever means necessary.

In an article coming out this month in Defense Technology International, I look at BAE Systems’ Jam Lab, which builds systems designed to defend against shoulder-fired missiles. An important component of building such systems is getting a hold of an actual threat missile. That’s easy to do if it’s the U.S.-built Stinger, but it can be much harder if it’s a Russian weapon. Paul Squires, a senior principal physicist at the Jam Lab, told me that there was one modern shoulder-fired missile that the United States has not been able to “beg, borrow or steal.” (Though Squires declined to name the specific weapon, the SA-24 is generally regarded as the latest and greatest foreign Manpads threat.)

One of the reasons the SA-24 may be so hard to come by is that Russia keeps relatively close hold on its latest technology. (It’s also highly possible that the U.S. government has, in fact, acquired an SA-24, and is simply keeping quiet about it.) But Venezuela, for its part, proudly displayed its SA-24s in a military parade earlier this year, and Syria is suspected of purchasing the missile from Russia, although neither side has yet to acknowledge it.

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