Air Defense: Newer Is Not Always Better

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December 27, 2019: In late 2019 a Russian official revealed 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. Israel and the United States say otherwise, at least in terms of confirming 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 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 have ever been presented and Israeli airstrikes consistently destroy their targets, even when Pantsir is present.

Then there was an incident a year ago when Russia was caught suppressing bad news about the performance of Pantsir-S1 in Syria. The comments were from a Russian source. This all began in late 2019 when Islamic terrorists used multiple small, explosives equipped 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 before they reached the base. 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 giving lots of publicity to much improved Pantsir models with most of the upgrades for the radar and fire control system. These all entered service in late 2018 and early 2019 as the Pantsir S1M, S2, S2E and SM. 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 in combat. 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 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. This was because the 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 located 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 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 but was sporadic for nearly a decade because there was no money. 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.

Pantsir-S1 is a mobile system, each vehicle carries 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 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 spare missiles as well as 30mm ammunition. There is also a system simulator that is carried in a truck or trailer.

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 Tor-M has been around since the 1980s and has no autocannon, just missiles. In late 2015 Russia announced another upgrade for their 30 year old Tor-M (SA-15). This upgrade enables the launcher vehicle to fire its guided missiles while on the move. The latest version of Tor is the Tor-M2U. The Tor-M missiles 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 another 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 is 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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