How did Turkish UAVs outmaneuver Russia's Pantsir air defense in Libya: Lessons and ramifications
Updated: May 28
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
A sophisticated attack on the forces of the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar by the Turkish-backed Government of the National Accord on May 17 led to the destruction of numerous Russian-made Pantisr air defense systems. In all, around nine may have been destroyed and one captured. Media coverage of the setback for Haftar led to questions about how he would continue his offensive against Tripoli. In the ten days that followed Russia and Turkey, as well as other backers of both sides, maneuvered. Russia sent MiG and Su warplanes to Libya. The destruction of the Pantsir followed difficulties it faced in Syria where both Turkish UAVs and Israeli airstrikes have destroyed the system. The Russian system has not faced these mounting losses historically. Media reports highlight the harm done to the system, especially reports in Turkish media. The challenges the system faced may have ramifications elsewhere. Serbia and other countries see the system as a deterrent. There were disputes about the numbers that Turkey also destroyed in Idlib in late February and early March. Between two and eight were allegedly hit. This could be a turning point in Libya and it is a watershed moment for the competition between UAVs and air defense. Satellite images and video show the destruction of the Pantsirs and reveal some details about what transpired (see video here). There is also video from June 2019 of Israel destroying one of the systems. In addition there is video from late February 2020 of a system being hit in Idlib.
What follows will be an examination of how Turkey may have outmaneuvered the system and revealed its weaknesses. It is based on discussion with a western air defense expert and analysis of what is known about the incidents in Syria and Libya.
The instability in the Middle East, particularly in Libya and Syria, has taken place amid the introduction of medium-altitude and high-altitude UAVs. These UAVs have also increasingly become a target for air defense. There have been increasing interceptions of drones. For instance a US MQ-9 was downed in Yemen in August 2019. In November an unarmed Italian Air Force Reaper drone was downed in Libya and a US drone was also shot down. A US Global Hawk was downed by Iranian air defense over the Gulf of Oman in June 2019.
At the same time the arms race to build better UAVs and evade detection by air defense is increasing in the region. In September 2019 up to 25 drones and cruise missiles struck the Saudi Arabia Abqaiq facility. They penetrated all the Saudi air defenses. Riyadh had modern equipment and had deployed air defenses at the facility. However, despite all this, their air defenses did not stop the threat. The lack of air defense was also on display when Iran fired ballistic missiles at two US bases in Iraq. The bases possessed early warning systems but no defenses capable of stopping the missiles, such as Patriots. The competition in the region has moved from the tactical to strategic because of the ramifications of these incidents.
In Libya there was a tactical conflict between the Government of the National Accord (GNA) and Libyan National Army (LNA) fighting for control of the country over the last several years. They increasingly received backing from foreign states. Egypt, the UAE, Russia and France, with support of Saudi Arabia and even Greece, have been backing the LNA, which is led by General Khalifa Haftar. The GNA, which is recognized by the UN, is supported by Turkey and Qatar and controls Tripoli. This conflict became more strategic at the point Russia sent warplanes to improve the airstrike capability of Haftar’s forces, before they collapse, which could have happened in the wake of recent clashes near Tripoli in which Haftar lost the Watiya airbase.
The Pantsir system
The Pantsir S1 (SA-22) system was developed in the 2000s based on the SK22 Tunguska, which has its origins in the 1980s. It was based on a limited system that combined air defense cannons and air defense missiles, a semi-active type of mobile air defense, which is what is called short range air defense (SHORAD). The Tunguska was developed by KBP in Tula in contrast to the longer range S-300 which is built by Almaz-Antey.
The Pantsir was developed in the 1990s and took time to get investment and support. This led to a better and more flexible system that is "semi-active" meaning its radar illuminates the target and reflections from the target which are then fed to the missile which follows the target. This semi-active radar detection enables it to seek and track targets and it can do so with 360 degrees monitoring. It can handle various types of targets. It's illumination radar however has only angular coverage and an azimuth of 30-45 degrees. It is believed it can deal with up to 3 targets simultaneously. It also has electro-optical means to track for a single target.
This means it could track three targets in one vector. But if it is attacked from several directions simultaneously it would need to turn its radar 180 degrees to deal with multiple targets. One issue to note is that in Syria the system was on a 8 x 8 KAMAZ 6560 TLAR chassis whereas in Libya it is on a German-made MAN truck. The system did not perform as expected in Libya. It should be able to track targets actively with the targets not knowing it is locked onto them, including aircraft, helicopters, and other munitions. It should have been effective.
What happened? There is a cat-and-mouse arms race between defense and offense, in which everyone is watching what happens in other conflicts and learning and adapting. Iran was able to penetrate Abqaiq from the north, knowing where the air defense was looking south.
The Pantsir has two types of weapons. Two 30mm guns that can fire 2,500 rounds per minute. It is impressive and integrating missiles into the armament makes it superior to some other western systems. It has 12 interceptors that can be fired at a time. Launchers need to see the target throughout the engagement phase, at a range up to 24 km.
The Turkish system that confronted the Pantsir had some experience. In 2012 a Pantsir shot down a Turkish F-4. in recent years Pantsirs have been destroyed in Syria by alleged Israeli air strikes and they appear to have been hit when they were not operating. Turkey, using its tactical Bayraktar TB2 UAVs, sought to suppress the Pantsir system using its MAM-L missiles. The UAV carries four of these missiles that weigh 22kg each. The UAV weighs around 650kg with a 12 meter wingspan. The drone's missiles have a range of around 8km and they receive guidance from the UAV and operator. The missile has no rocket motor. Developed by Roketsan the missile has an extended range up to 14km which is not relevant for our discussion of Libya. It has a warhead that can penetrate various hard targets.
The Pantsir should have been more than a match for these UAVs because of its 20km tracking range. But the UAVs are long endurance and can loiter around waiting for opportunities. The Pantsir, however has multiple radars and electro-optics and should be able to deal with slow moving UAVs. One expert said this is like a fighter with a long sword against a short sword. So how did the short sword win?
In February in Syria, Turkey claimed to have destroyed up to 9 Pantsirs and the Russians admitted 2 were destroyed. The photos show several of those hit in Syria, and we can easily see the differences between Libya and Syria's types by the chassis they are on. Footage in Syria shows they were hit from the rear. In Libya nine more Pantsirs were damaged or destroyed and one captured. We can see three were hit in a convoy and others were hit in shelters. The MAM-L penetrated shelters while the vehicles were apparently not operating. None of the Pantsirs were hit from the front. This points to a systematic effort using intelligence to overcome the Russian system.
Several reasons can be put forward for why the system did no perform as expected. One issue may be inexperienced crews. Turkey's Koral electronic warfare system likely aided the Bayraktars to overcome the Pantsir. Social media users have postulated that this system was active in Syria and then in Libya. The Koral jammer was effective against engagement radar and that blinded the Pantsir so they had only their electro-optics available. The reputation of the Russian system has now suffered. It is used in ten countries with others expressing interest. Users or those placing orders include Algeria, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, UAE, Oman, Jordan and Syria. Russia has been selling its air defense to more countries in recent years, including Turkey which purchased the S-400. The experience in Syria and Libya, ironically against Turkey which is also a Russian customer, has harmed the reputation of Russia's Pantsir and been a setback for the system.
The last year has seen a number of important incidents in the realm of UAVs and air defense. From Saudi Arabia to the Gulf of Oman, Syria and Libya, a rapid change is taking place where the latest systems are put to the test in clashes. The know-how of the air defender and UAV operator is key, including intelligence and technical equipment involved in defeating each system. Having shorter range missiles doesn't mean that UAVs will be defeated by air defense.
Is there a learning curve of attrition in these battles? Both the LNA and Syrian regime claim to have brought down numerous Turkish drones. These include various numbers put forward by partisans of Damascus and Benghazi: Around 20 Turkish UAVs were reportedly downed in Syria and up to 14 in Libya in recent months. There is visual evidence for some of these downings. For the vast majority there is no evidence they were shot down. However some did crash for various reasons.
Known interceptions of UAVs over Libya include the Italian Predator. A US drone was also shot down in November 2019 and AFRICOM subsequently asked for it to be returned. However when it comes to the Bayraktars there may also be an attrition rate because of mechanical failure over time. The UAVs were in the air often and even hough they have a long endurance of some 20 hours, they were likely flying up to 16 hours at a time in day and night conditions. UAV manufacturers and countries with advanced air defense are watching Libya. This includes the US, Russia, Turkey, Iran and China, as well as Israel. The gaps revealed in Libya will be filled and more effective phased array radar with longer range and operating at 360 degrees will be pushed to units in the field. Russia will have to make improvements. Operating these systems to cover a large area, whether the Libyan desert or Saudi Arabia is always going to be complex. One can't defend every piece of infrastructure. Intelligence is key to carrying out successful attack and defense and these examples have revealed just how essential. The Iranian attack on Abqaiq was made possible by good intelligence. It was not discovered by Riyadh, the Gulf States or the US. The same happened in Libya, the information of where the Pantsirs are located and in which convoy was provided to UAV operators. Experts we spoke to agree: It’s not by coincidence, someone knew and prepared and waited. The fact they were destroyed in the hangers, they were inactive or the crew had to go somewhere and someone waited for the exact the time to strike. It’s a battle management and intelligence coup. Can a developer like Russia adapt? Yes. heir mobile defense is good, but it requires active missiles and radar that can target at 360 degrees. One expert pointed to the AN/SPY-1 phased array radar that is part of the Aegis Combat System. These recent incidents, from the Iranian downing of the Global Hawk in June 2019 to the September attack on Abqaiq and the May 17-20 defeat of the Pantsir systems were turning points in a changing era.