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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 13:26 | SYDNEY

The double digit threat

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10 September 2009 15:22

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Prompted by Sam's post on the Saudi Arms deal, let me venture into an area of expertise of which this ex-ground soldier admits to knowing very little. It is an area of extreme importance to Australia and the West and needs to be regularly addressed given that what passes for military thought in Australia spends most if its time with its head down in the counterinsurgency weeds.

The S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) is known in the West as one of the 'double digit SAMs', the most advanced Russian-origin weapons, designated by NATO as the SA-10, SA-20, SA-21 etc. When combined with the latest Russian and Chinese aircraft and cruise missiles (especially anti-ship missiles fired from the air, surface and sub-surface), these technological developments are central for those, such as Hugh White, who maintain that the days of surface ships are over. 

But their impact is far wider than just at sea. A quantum leap ahead of the old SA-2 of Vietnam fame (pictured), these surface-to-air missiles are one of the products of the US demonstration of its air supremacy during Desert Storm, which prompted Russia and China to launch into development. The results of these developments are not only surface-to-air missiles, but aircraft and air-to-air missiles. Three sites useful for a discussion of the pros and cons are RAND's Project Air Force page, Air Power Australia and the RAAF Association's Williams Foundation.

The importance of such missiles for the Middle East may not be in the view implied in Sam's article that the S-300 is a self-defence weapon, but in the nuclear capability being developed behind such an effective self-defence. There are those in the Middle East, of a Sunni or Jewish disposition, who hold the view that, if Iran develops or looks like developing a nuclear weapon, they must have the capability to at least disrupt that process. An effective air defence capability in Iran (based on S-300 and later weapons) changes the equation. The rumours that abound about shiploads of Russian S-300 missiles hijacked on the way to Iran only illustrate the point.

If Iran develops an effective air defence system over its actual or potential nuclear development sites, the trigger for regional paranoia is no longer the date by which Iran may develop nuclear weapons, but the date by which their air defence is effective (I have heard that this will occur some time in 2009 but others will know better). The question for regional players then becomes to disrupt nuclear development before an effective air defence is in place, or possibly not be able to attack at all.

Such weapons have totally changed the military options that the US has in regard to Taiwan, and given the apparent failure of US 'smart power' diplomacy across the globe so far, these are important issues. The relevance to Australia, apart from another Middle East war, is in the impact such lethal technology has on our recent White Paper and the military force that it hopes to develop over the next thirty years.

Photo by Flickr user divemasterking2000, used under a Creative Commons license.

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