In July 2020 Odintsovo, the fifth of the new Russian Karakurt corvettes, began sea trials. The navy is uneasy about this because the Odintsovo is the first of four Karakurts that will be armed with a Pantsir M air defense system rather than the cheaper and less capable 57E6 Sosna-R. The one advantage of the Sosna-R is that it cannot be jammed. Sosna-R is basically an enlarged shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile that uses an electro-optical sensor to track the target and a secure control signal plus a proximity fuze to get it close enough to destroy or disable the target. Systems like Sosna-R have been around for decades and are known to work.
On paper the naval Pantsir is a superior system with a longer-range (30 kilometers) Hermes K missile backed by twin-multi-barrel 30mm autocannon (range five kilometers) to deal with anti-ship targets that get past the missiles. Pantsir M replaced two systems; the Sosna-R missiles and the two AK-630 CIWS autocannon. Pantsir M was deliberately designed to eliminate a design flaw in the land-based Pantsir-S1 that made it easy for some electronic and weapon systems to destroy or disable it.
Aside from the potential Pantsir problem the Karakurts have been a success. At the end of 2018 the Russian Navy put into service the first of 22 Karakurt (Project 22800) corvettes. The first ship was assigned to the Baltic Sea. Three are now in service with one in sea trials and eight more are in various states of construction in three shipyards. This is a new type of coastal corvette that is more capable on the open seas. Some of them are being built in the Crimean shipyards Russia acquired in 2014 when they basically took Crimea from Ukraine.
Russia has been building smaller corvettes since the 1990s for several reasons. First, the Russian shipyards have proved more effective in building these small (under 1,000 tons) ships than larger ones. Then there is the urgent need for heavily armed corvettes to serve as a low-cost patrol vessel that can handle just about anything it runs into during coastal patrols or even wartime operations. Finally, there is a growing export market for this type of ship.
The Karakurts are 800-ton ships that are 65 meters (213 feet) long and have a top speed of 56 kilometers an hour. They are armed with one 76mm cannon, eight launch tubes holding 1.2 ton 3K14 Kalibr anti-ship missiles (range 300 kilometers) or P800 anti-ship missiles (range 600 kilometers), two 14.5mm machine-guns, two AK-630 multi-barrel 30mm autocannon for close range defense against missiles and aircraft and 32 57E6 anti-aircraft missiles (range 20 kilometers). There is also a launching pad for large helicopter type UAVs. The crew of 30 can stay at sea for 15 days at a time before needing to refuel and resupply. Each of the first four Karakurts cost approximately $30 million.
The Russian navy, because of budget cuts, has suspended or canceled construction plans for many larger ships and subs, leaving the Navy to apply all its procurement efforts to obtaining smaller ships on budget and on time. Not only are the smaller ships cheaper but they can be built quickly and are easier to monitor for quality control. The shipyards producing these smaller ships know they are fortunate because so many other yards have had construction contracts canceled or suspended.
The Russian defense industry is still riddled with firms that cannot do it right, on time and on budget. The Pantsir is an example of that. The reports that the original Pantsir S1 was often destroyed by missiles in Syria and Libya was unwelcome news for the Russian Navy. Russia is giving the land-based Pantsir S1 (SA-22) anti-aircraft system one more chance to be useful in land combat. A new version, Pantsir S1M, which was first made public over a year at the Dubai (UAE) IDEX 2019 trade show but won’t be delivered to customers until 2021.
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 were incurred in Libya where Russia supplied one of the two factions (the LNA or Libyan National Army) fighting a civil war there 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. Russia admitted that Pantsir S1 had difficulty tracking and destroying targets that were flying at high speed at very low or at very high altitudes.
In contrast Pantsir M was specifically designed to deal with low altitude (“sea skimming”) fast moving anti-ship missiles. There were also problems with the jamming of Pantsir S1 which is supposed to be solved in Pantsir M and Pantsir S1M with the use of an electro-optical fire control system for close range targets. Pantsir S1 was not supposed to have vulnerabilities like the ones that showed up combat and led to so many Pantsir S1 systems destroyed. For the navy that is not enough. If Pantsir M has similar problems a ship will be lost while during land combat the loss of one or more Pantsir systems does not have such a catastrophic effect.
The new, improved and “reliable” Pantsir S1M is equipped with 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. While Turkey and Russia are allies, they avoid killing each other’s personnel in Syria and Libya and the new Pantsir S1M would 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 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 and more support vehicles. These 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.