How has electronic warfare made Russia’s Pantsir air defence system so vulnerable?
Pantsirs were deployed in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars: In Syria they supported Russia’s deployment to assist the regime of President Bashir al-Assad. One Pantsir was thought to be responsible for the destruction of a Türk Hava Kuvvetleri (Turkish Air Force/TAF) McDonnell Douglas RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance aircraft on 22nd June 2012 over Syria’s northern Mediterranean coast. Russian and Syrian sources claim Panstir has downed at least 50 aerostats, drones, missiles and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) claims to have destroyed a single Pantsir during IAF attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in May 2018. Likewise between 27th February and 3rd March 2020 Turkey’s armed forces claimed to have hit two Syrian Air Defence Force Pantsir-S1s.
Several systems were lost in Libya: The United Arab Emirates deployed Pantsir-S1s to support Libyan National Army (LNA) forces during their advance on the Libyan capital Tripoli. Eight of these were reported destroyed/captured by Libya’s internationally-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and Turkish armed forces assisting the GNA.
The Pantsir provides robust coverage against low-altitude threats and includes the following subsystems:
- 57E6 radio/optically-guided SAMs with a range of 9.7 nautical miles/nm (18,000 metres) and an altitude of 49,000 feet/ft (15,000m).
- Four 2A38 30mm guns with a range of 2.2nm (four kilometres) and altitude of 1.6nm (three kilometres).
- One 25.4-nautical mile (47-kilometre) range VNIIRT 2RL80/E S-band (2.3 gigahertz/GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz) fire control radar.
EW and Pantsir
Electronic Warfare (EW) may have played a role in these losses. EW expert Yanal Sajaja says that electronic attack and electronic support may have helped to locate and destroy Pantsirs.
The Pantsir’s radar may be relatively easy to detect and locate. Whether the radar employs Low Probability of Interception or Detection (LPI/D) waveforms is unknown. If the radar uses only basic LPI/D techniques this may have helped electronic warfare practitioners to find the equipment.
The TAF might have deployed its TAI Anka-1 signals intelligence UAV in Syria and Libya. The Anka-I may collect electronic intelligence across a 30 megahertz to three gigahertz waveband: This waveband would allow the 2RL80/E radar to be detected.
Detecting the radar would betray the Pantsir’s location. Its location discovered, jamming could then be used. Electronic attack could be provided by TAF Aselsan Koral ground-based electronic warfare systems. Koral jams wavebands of 2.3GHz to 36GHz. Jamming the 2RL80/E would then allow the Pantsir to be attacked by weapons now undetectable by its radar.
Mr. Sajaja says that such weapons could include stand-off air-to-surface missiles with ranges eclipsing the Pantsir’s reach. He adds that Pantsirs have been attacked while on-the-move or undergoing maintenance. Meanwhile a weak Syrian Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) and a non-existent IADS in Libya may have deprived the Pantsirs of overlapping air defence coverage. Similarly attacking the Pantsir with multiple munitions from multiple directions may have saturated the systems’ ability to defend itself.
The Pantsir’s record in both theatres will have not helped potential sales. This record has also shown vulnerabilities exploitable by other air forces fighting this weapon in future wars.