Saturday 19 February 2022

Goas In The Savanna: Mali’s S-125 SAM Systems

By Thomas Nachtrab in collaboration with Stijn Mitzer
The S-125 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system gained wide popularity for its performance during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. Initially supplied to a number of countries in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the S-125 (NATO designation: SA-3 'Goa') quickly found its way to a great number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa as well. One of these countries was Mali, which received its S-125 systems somewhere during the early-to-mid 1980s.
Details regarding the S-125's service record in Mali and photos are - like with most of Mali's military equipment - hard to come by. Available records detail the delivery of six quadruple launchers (for a total of two SAM sites) by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. [1] As with most advanced weapon systems delivered to Soviet client states in Africa, it appears that the S-125's sensitive components were mostly maintained by Soviet advisers until the late 1980s. [2] 
The two S-125 sites initially appear to have been deployed to the air bases of Gao and Mopti. [3] Both of these air bases are located close to the border with Burkina Faso, with which Mali was engaged in a short but fierce border conflict in late 1985. That said, the Burkina Faso Air Force only operated a single MiG-17 fighter during the 1980s, which's short range was insufficient to reach Gao or Mopti when operating from either of Burkina Faso's two air bases.
At some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the S-125 sites were moved to Bamako–Sénou Airport, where one of the sites was placed in storage and its equipment subsequently used as a source of spare parts for the remaining site. This site was installed on the grounds of the airport, which also hosts a military side known as 'Base Aérienne 101'. BA 101 was, and still is, the primary air base of the Forcé Aérienne de la Armée de l'Air du Mali (Malian Air Force).

A rare photograph of a Malian S-125 launcher with one missile ready to fire.

Mali's S-125 site at Bamako Airport now lays abandoned. Two of the launchers still have missiles fitted to them.

After the withdrawal of Soviet advisers from Mali in the early 1990s, the Malian Air Force soon encountered huge difficulties in maintaining its S-125s and MiG-21 fighter aircraft. Operations of the sole remaining S-125 SAM site appears to have ended in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and no attempts were made to overhaul the systems or to buy new equipment for them (as most other Sub-Saharan African S-125 operators did). Given the sighting of the S-125's PR-14 transport and loading vehicles during several parades throughout the early 2010s, it appears that Mali still maintained (or refurbished) at least some of the S-125's components for the dubious task of parade crowd-pleasers.

A ZiL-131 truck tows a S-125 missile canister during a military parade in 1991.

PR-14 transport and loading vehicles seen during a parade in Bamako in January 2010.

A Ural-4320 crane system (used to handle the S-125's missile canisters) during a parade in September 2011.

After the commencement of the Mali War in 2012, priorities within the Malian Armed Forces shifted drastically. The luxury of maintaining vehicles and equipment solely for display in parades was no longer present, and the PR-14 transport and loading vehicles were abandoned for a final time. As of 2022, the decommissioned launchers, associated radars, transport and loading vehicles and other equipment continue to rust away at BA 101 in Bamako.

Several PR-14 transport and loading vehicled are dumped next to the fuselage of a decommissioned Mi-24D attack helicopter.

The S-125's V-601 surface-to-air missiles can't be stored indefinitely without proper maintenance, and in late 2013 the Malian Ministry of Defence reached out to UNMAS (the United Nations Mine Action Service) for help in safely disposing the 84 V-601 missiles that were still stored at BA 101. [4] [5] On the 28th of March 2014, UNMAS personnel, in cooperation with the Malian Armed Forces, began moving the missiles to a demolition site outside of Koulikoro, located some 80km south-east of Bamako. 
Over the course of some two months, the 84 V-601 missiles were dismantled (which included the removal of the rocket boosters) and destroyed via controlled detonation. [4] [5] With the demolition of the last missiles, Mali's SAM operations came to a definite end.

[4] Stockpile Destruction of Obsolete Surface-to-Air Missiles in Mali - Issuu 
[5] Work in Mali a success – The Development Initiative