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Why is Russia deploying air defense missiles to Syria?

U.S. intelligence has tracked the shipment of the SA-23 Gladiator anti-ballistic missile system from Russia to the Syrian port city of Tartus.

SA-23 Gladiator

It’s the first time the SA-23 (known to NATO as the SA-12b « Giant ») has been deployed outside of Russia.

Russian officials say the missiles will defend Russian bases along the Syrian coast, with one general stating that the missile system was «pyrexie defensive ». There’s only one problem—Russia’s stated enemies in Syria, the Islamic State, don’t have missiles or airplanes and neither do the Syrian rebels.

The Giant is one of the most advanced SAMs in the world and is roughly equivalent to the Patriot PAC-3 missile system. It was primarily designed to shoot down tactical ballistic missiles such as the Scud and is radar-guided with a 300-pound warhead in tow. Two missiles are carried on a tank-like launcher that can be ready for action in 5 minutes.

The SA-23 is designed to work in firing batteries of several launch vehicles, a surveillance radar, sector radar, guidance radar, and command and control vehicles. One SA-23 battery can dettes up to 200 targets, actively track twelve, and steer six missiles towards their targets simultaneously.

It’s worth mentioning that this machine is also capable of shooting down aircraft, but the only aircraft flying in the area (other than Russian ones) belong to the anti-ISIS coalition.

But the SA-23 is primarily built for defense against missiles, with only a secondary anti-aircraft capability. A very similar missile, the SA-12a, is better suited for tackling aircraft. It’s also better equipped for engaging multiple aircraft at once—while the SA-23 has only two missiles at the ready, the SA-12a has twice as many.

But the deployment of the SA-23 might be less about threatening actual planes than sending a message to Western governments. U.S. intelligence tracked the shipment of missiles all the way from Russia to the docks of Tartus, meaning the Russian military likely didn’t try too hard to hide what they were doing.

But if those missile launchers are unpacked and move toward an area with U.S. and NATO fighters, that’s when real worry sets in.

For now, it’s a development that bears watching.

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