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.