Air Defense: America Buys Another Russian Wonder Weapon


March 14, 2021: In January 2021 a Russian truck-mounted Pantsir S1 (SA-22) air-defense system captured in Libya was turned over to the U.S. at a German airbase. The UAE had, with assistance from American commandos and an American C-17 transport, obtained the Pantsir S1 and flown it out of an improvised landing strip west of Tripoli. The UAE had apparently arranged to buy the Pantsir S1 from one of the Libyan militias that captured the Pantsir when they accompanied Turkish mercenaries to capture an airfield,

This confirms rumors that the Americans had acquired a Pantsir in 2020 with the help of UAE. The Russians and the UAE had long supported the LNA (Libyan National Army) with weapons, air support and logistical services. This alliance had made it possible for the LNA to control over 80 percent of Libya by late 2020. Then the Turks agreed to provide military support, including thousands of Syrian Arab mercenaries, to help the GNA (Government of National Accord) push back the LNA forces that had besieged Tripoli since early 2019 and were on the verge of taking the city and eliminating the GNA in late 2019 when the Turkish forces began arriving.

By May 2020 Turkish and GNA forces had broken the LNA siege of Tripoli and the LNA forces began moving away from the city. This enabled the Turks to capture the al Watiya airbase 135 kilometers southeast of Tripoli. This had long been a major military airbase and the LNA captured it intact in 2014. The airbase served as a major logistical and air support base for the 2019 operation to capture Tripoli. The Turks launched a major effort to take al Watiya and this was supported by over fifty airstrikes carried out by Turkish UAVs. Several warplanes and at least one Russian Pantsir air defense vehicle were captured at the airbase. The Russian Pantsir systems have been remarkably ineffective against the many Turkish UAVs used in Libya. The Pantsir the Americans obtained was the same model as the one the Turks captured. It was also the same model that had performed so poorly against Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

Russia was aware of his poor performance of it its troubled Pantsir S1 anti-aircraft system and in 2019 announced a major Pantsir upgrade, Pantsir S1M, that would be available in 2021. The upgrade can be applied to existing older Pantsir S1 systems. It was specifically noted that the S1M model had changes based on combat experience in Syria and Libya. That combat experience was disastrous, with over twenty Pantsir S1 vehicles destroyed by Turkish and Israeli aircraft and electronic countermeasures. Most of the losses occurred in Libya where Russia supplied the LNA with over 20 Pantsir S1 vehicles. Most were lost to Turkish Bayraker TB2 UAVs firing laser-guided missiles after the Pantsir S1s had been blinded by Turkish Koral jammers. Israel used similar tactics in Syria.

The Pantsir S1M is a major upgrade that includes a new, 75-kilometer range, radar plus an “advanced” electro-optical target tracking system. Electro-optical systems cannot be blinded easily and certainly not by electronic jammers. The S1M is now equipped to detect and take down all manner of UAVs, no matter what their size or operating capabilities. S1M uses a new missile with a range of 30 kilometers and an improved internal guidance system.

At the same time, there has been a less publicized effort by the Russian army and navy to obtain a new system to replace Pantsir, which they have lost confidence in. Given the dismal state of the defense budget, it may be a while before a Pantsir replacement can be developed and delivered. Meanwhile, Russia is apparently going to put the S1M model to the test in actual combat. Turkey and Russia are allies, so they avoid killing each other’s personnel in Syria and Libya, but the new Pantsir S1M would only be out to destroy Turkish UAVs. That will cost Turkey some hardware and reputation if S1M works but won’t do the kind of diplomatic damage Russians killing Turkish troops does.

Pantsir-S1 is a mobile, truck-mounted system. Each vehicle carries a radar, two 30mm cannon and twelve Tunguska missiles. The original 90 kg (198 pound) missiles had a twenty-kilometer range and the radar a 30-40-kilometer range. The missile can hit targets at up to 8,400 meters (26,000 feet). The new Tunguska is heavier, has a longer (30 kilometers) range and presumably can hit targets at higher altitudes.

The 30mm cannon is effective up to 3,200 meters (10,000 feet). The carrier vehicle can vary, but the most common one carrying all this weighs 20 tons and has a crew of three. Each Pantsir-S1 vehicle-mounted system costs about $15 million, and the S1M costs about a third more. Typically, four to six Pantsir vehicles are organized as a battalion along with a command post and support vehicles. Larger numbers of Pantsir vehicles are organized into a regiment of two or three battalions.

Support vehicles consist of electronic and mechanical repair vehicles as well as other vehicles carrying spare parts and missile reloads and 30mm ammunition. There is also a system simulator that is carried in a truck or trailer. Russia has made a tremendous investment in Pantsir and does not want to scrap the system. If S1M doesn’t work in combat, Pantsir will have to go if only because its survival depends so much on export customers.

Russia had already gone to extraordinary lengths to protect Pantsir in the media. In a rare incidence of Russian damage control, Valery Slugin, the lead designer of the Pantsir-S1 air defense system, gave a media interview to a Russian newspaper in early 2020. Slugin explained how a Syrian Pantsir vehicle was destroyed by Israel forces in early 2019. The Israelis released a video of the incident. Slugin explained that it was the fault of the Syrian crew, which had fired all of their missiles and were waiting for the missile resupply vehicle. Meanwhile, the Israelis noted the missiles being fired, found the Pantsir and destroyed it with a missile. Slugin explained that if the Pantsir crew had moved the vehicle the Israelis might not have found and destroyed it. Slugin also stated that this Pantsir had just destroyed eight targets, presumably Israeli cruise missiles, while firing its twelve missiles. The Israelis reported that the target of their cruise missiles was destroyed and only two cruise missiles failed to hit the target. Nevertheless, the state-owned Russian firm that developed, manufactured and markets Pantsir to export customers felt it necessary to let the world know what they believe actually happened. Russian media also released a video of Pantsir missiles exploding in the air. In response, Israel revealed that the cause of this was that its Delilah cruise missiles carry a radar jammer that makes Pantsir to lose track of their target. When that happens Pantsir missiles self-destruct rather than hit the ground and risk friendly casualties. Russia implied that the missile was exploding near an unseen target. This was accurate, but not the way the Russians wanted it to be.

Another marketing effort in late 2019 publicized the fact that over 30 Pantsir-S1 systems had been sent to Syria, and implied that this many Pantsir-S1 vehicles could defend all of Syria from air (warplanes, UAVs, cruise and ballistic missiles) attack. The problem with Pantsir is that only Russia and Syria claim the system is effective. Its opponents (Israel, the United States and Turkey) have another perspective that contradicts Russian and Syrian claims. Moreover, the Russian air defense systems used by Syria have, since 2011, brought down only one aircraft, an elderly Turkish RF-4E reconnaissance aircraft shot down by accident in 2012. The Turkish aircraft was flying off the coast and apparently not expecting to be attacked. Syria was then using Cold War era Russian equipment. When the Russians intervened in 2015, they brought more modern air defense systems with them, including the Pantsir. The problem is that the much-hyped Pantsir has been a flop. No proof of any Pantsir kills has ever been presented and Israeli airstrikes consistently destroy their targets, even when Pantsir is present and firing lots of those Tunguska missiles.

Then there was an earlier incident where Russia was caught suppressing bad news about the performance of Pantsir-S1 in Syria. In one case the comments were from a Russian source. This took place in late 2018 when Islamic terrorists used multiple small, explosives-armed UAVs to launch several attacks on the Russian controlled Hmeimim (or “Khmeimim”) airbase in Syria. Russia reported that these attacks failed because Russian air defense systems shot down over fifty of the small UAVs. Unofficial reports, via the Internet, indicated that the two short-range anti-aircraft systems guarding the base performed very differently. The older Tor-M2U system used its missiles successfully to shoot down the UAVs while the more recent Pantsir-S1 missiles all missed. Russian Internet censors were quick to take down some of the negative comments but the news was now out and spreading. Around this time Russia was also given lots of publicity to new, much improved, Pantsir models. Most of the upgrades were in the radar and fire control systems. These new Pantsir S2, S2E and SM models entered service in late 2018 and early 2019. Not all Pantsir vehicles have been upgraded and the overall impact of the upgrades does not appear to have been dramatic.

The late 2018 incident was not the first time Pantsir-S1 has been described as a failure. The Hmeimim airbase incidents were important because they involved a Russian controlled airbase in a combat zone. Hmeimim was built by Russia in 2015 near the port city of Latakia, which is 85 kilometers north of the port of Tartus and 50 kilometers from the Turkish border. Russia brought in Pantsir-S1, Tor-M2U and S-400 air-defense systems to protect it from attack.

The irony of this is that the Tor-M system is much older, with development begun in the 1970s while Pantsir-S1 development began twenty years later. The major difference between the two was that Tor-M was more successful and more expensive. The cost factor was one reason for developing the Pantsir-S1 but at first only export customers could afford it because the Russian military procurement budgets were sharply cut in the 1990s. In 2010, three years after the first foreign customer (Syria) received the Pantsir-S1, the Russian Air Force began getting some. The Russian economy was recovering sufficiently to expand defense spending. Initially, the Russian Air Force received the S1E version, with an improved radar (36-kilometer range) and missile (more reliable). Curiously, the air force used their first ten Pantsir-S1s to guard S-300 anti-aircraft missile bases around Moscow. There was no explanation from the Russians as to why they felt a mobile, low level anti-aircraft system was needed to guard a larger, high altitude one. Perhaps as additional protection against cruise missiles.

These ten Pantsir vehicles for Moscow were supposed to arrive in 2008, but there were more technical problems. There's been a pattern of that with Pantsir-S1. Development began in the 1990s. Work was sporadic for nearly a decade because there was little cash available. Meanwhile, several Arab nations were persuaded to order a total of about 150 Pantsir-S1 vehicles and most of those have not yet been in combat. Russia does not want these customers to question Pantsir's reliability. After all the system has worked during test firings and is a very profitable export.

Yet the main problem with Pantsir-S1 is that in combat it doesn’t work. Failures have been reported at least three times since 2007, and all occurred in Syria. Two months after Syria received Pantsir-S1s in 2007, Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear weapons development facility. The Syrians were very dismayed at how ineffective the new Pantsir-S1 systems were during the Israeli strike. The 2007 failure was attributed to Israelis figuring out how to blind these systems electronically. In 2017 Pantsir S1 again failed during an Israeli attack and the excuse this time was that the Pantsir-S1s were not turned on. The 2018 failure was with operational Pantsir systems firing missiles at UAVs and missing while Tor-M2U systems detected UAVs and regularly shot them down with missiles. The video of Israeli weapons destroying a Pantsir vehicle was something the Russians felt they had to explain away, or at least try to.

The Tor-M has been around since the 1980s and has no autocannon, just missiles. It has been frequently updated. A late 2015 upgrade for their 30-year-old Tor-M (SA-15) enabled the launcher vehicle to fire its guided missiles while on the move. The latest version of Tor is the Tor-M2U which can hit aircraft up to 12 kilometers away and cruise missiles at a distance of five kilometers. The missile launcher vehicle has a crew of three (commander, driver and missile systems operator). The 176 kg (378 pound) missiles are three meters (ten feet) long, 235mm (9.25 inches) in diameter and carry a 15 kg (33 pound) warhead. Each battery has search radar and command center vehicles controlling four launcher vehicles (each carrying eight missiles, and another radar.)

The original tracking radar on the missile vehicle could track one target at a time but the latest (Tor-M2) can track four at a time. Missiles can be launched from the vehicle at three second intervals. The original missile carrier/launcher vehicle was armored (against small arms and shell fragments), tracked and weighed 34 tons. Since then, a cheaper towed (on a wheeled trailer) version has appeared followed by a version on a 6x6 truck that proved more maneuverable, comfortable and cheaper than the armored version.

In 2018 a major upgrade was introduced; Tor-E2. With this model, the tracked vehicle was redesigned and upgraded to operate independently. The Tor-E2 carries sixteen missiles and its own search radar. The range of the missile has been increased to 15 kilometers.

Russia was the original user but Tor-M has also been exported to fourteen other countries including Greece, Venezuela, China, Iran and Egypt. Russia prefers to sell export customers the Pantsir but knowledgeable customers keep ordering the more expensive Tor-M because they know it works. Now Russia is trying to do for the Pantsir what they did with Tor-M, keep improving it until it works.

The U.S. has, for decades, monitored Russian progress in developing new military equipment. The American offered high prices for anyone who could provide access to current Russian systems. This included multi-million-dollar rewards and residence in the U.S. for pilots of Russian warplanes who would defect with their aircraft. A number of modern Russian fighters were obtained this way. An even more productive sources was Arab governments who had been rearmed by the Russians after the disastrous (for the Arabs) 1967 Six Day War with Israel. During this war the Israelis captured a lot of older Russian equipment the Arabs had obtained since the 1950s. After the 1967 defeat Russia offered to equip Arab states with the most modern Russian systems. This made a difference during the 1973 war, but the Arabs still lost. Israel captured a lot of new Russian gear and shared this bonanza with the United States, which was and still is a major supplier of military tech to Israel. The Americans obtained even more Russian military tech after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and fourteen now countries were formed from the wreckage of the Soviet Union. The dissolution deal had each of these new nations inheriting any military gear on their territory at the time of dissolution. Troops could return to the part of former Soviet Union they came from but the weapons remained, including ICBMs, nukes and thousands of the most modern Russian aircraft and other weapons in service. American technical intelligence personnel spent most of the early 1990s examining and actually testing this stuff. When Russia began developing Pantsir in the 1990s the Americans had a good idea of what kind of tech would go into the new SA-22. Now they have a Pantsir S1 and they can confirm what they estimated it was all about.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close