Air Defense: Damage Control Versus Reality

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February 21, 2020: In a rare incidence of Russian damage control, Valery Slugin the lead designer of the Pantsir-S1 air defense system, recently gave a media interview to a Russian newspaper. 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 was 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 video of Pantsir missiles exploding in the air so 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.

Pantsir-S1 is a mobile, truck-mounted system. Each vehicle carries a radar, two 30mm cannon and twelve Tunguska missiles. The 90 kg (198 pound) missiles have 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 30mm cannon is effective up to 3,200 meters (10,000 feet). The 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. 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 and more support vehicles. These consist of electronic and mechanical repair vehicles as well as other vehicles carrying spare parts and e missile reloads and 30mm ammunition. There is also a system simulator that is carried in a truck or trailer.

Another marketing effort was a late 2019 announcement that over 30 Pantsir-S1 (SA-22) anti-aircraft 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. The enemy (Israel and the United States) has 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 S1M, 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 and controls 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.

 


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