Is the US acquisition of a Pantsir-S1 short-range air defence system really the electronic warfare bonus it is cracked up to be?
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The US Air Force probably hoped that its flight of a Boeing C-17A Globemaster-III turbofan freighter from Zuwarah Airport near the far western Libyan coast to Ramstein airbase in southwestern Germany last June would elicit little suspicion. However, the arrival of a USAF plane in a war-torn state and its subsequent departure was always going to set tongues wagging and fingers tapping. Just what was going on?
A late January report in The Times laid the mystery to rest. Uncle Sam was reaping the spoils of battle. The civil war in Libya, raging as it has been for almost a decade, has morphed into a proxy conflict embroiling several nations within and without the Middle East each with a dog in the fight.
One such actor is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Emirati government backs Libya’s House of Representatives in turn supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA). These actors control much of the eastern and southern parts of the country. The UAE has matched its political support with materiel. Kit deployed on the ground has included KBP Instrument Design Bureau 96K9 Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) short-range air defence systems.
Armada’s records indicate that the UAE procured 50 96K9s from Russia between 2009 and 2013 following an initial order in 2000. All these systems are installed on MAN SX45 eight-wheel drive trucks and deployed with the UAE Army. The UAE commenced its deployment of 96K6s in Libya from June 2019, according to open sources.
It seems the Pantsir-S1s have not had a good war. One system was reportedly destroyed by forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA), in control of large parts of western Libya, on 13th November 2019. A second system succumbed to a GNA Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strike on 15th May 2020. Three days later GNA cadres captured Al-Watiya airbase and with it reportedly the same Pantsir-S1 targeted on 15th May. Pictures of the 96K6 on social media showed the system looking worse for wear. A further seven Pantsir-S1s were claimed destroyed by GNA forces at Al-Watiya.
The C-17A visiting Zuwarah airport spirited away the Pantsir-S1 captured at Al-Watiya which had been handed over to the United States. The current whereabouts of this system are unknown. It would be surprising if it is not already in the United States being pawed over by intelligence experts.
Big Birds and Cheese Boards
That the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) are interested in the 96K6 comes as little surprise. The Pantsir-S1 forms an important part of the wider modernisation of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ and Russian Army’s respective integrated air defence system and deployed ground-based air defences.
Russian Aerospace Forces typically deploy three 96K6s with each Almaz-Antey S-400 (NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler) high-altitude/long-range Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) battalion. Two S-400 battalions form an anti-aircraft missile regiment with between two and five regiments forming an air defence division. The 96K6’s role is to provide short-range air defence for the S-400 batteries. This is to protect them against aircraft, UAVs or anti-radiation missiles seeking to exploit blind spots in the low-altitude coverage of the S-400’s 91N6A/E (NATO reporting name Big Bird) S-band (2.3 gigahertz/GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz) and 96L6E (NATO reporting name Cheese Board) C-band (5.25GHz to 5.925GHz) ground-based air surveillance radars.
The 96K6 uses a combination of 57E6 semi-active radar homing/optically guided SAMs with a range of 9.7 nautical miles/nm (18 kilometres) and a maximum altitude of 49,000 feet/ft (14,935 metres/m). The missiles are joined by two 2A38M 30mm autocannons with a maximum altitude of 9,842ft (3,000m) and a maximum range of 2.2nm (four kilometres). Target detection is courtesy of the 96K6’s VNIIRT 2RL80 S-band radar with a 1RS2-1 Ku-band (13.4GHz to 14GHz/15.7GHz to 17.7GHz) radar for fire control.
At first glance, having these radars fall into US hands seems like an intelligence coup. Any future confrontation betwixt Russia and NATO would almost certainly see an imperative to engage 96K6s electronically and kinetically. To do the former requires a good knowledge of the radars used by this system so jamming waveforms can be devised.
Having the radars one wishes to jam in one’s possession helps immeasurably. The Royal Air Force realised this in February 1942 when British Army paratroopers stole a Luftwaffe (German Air Force) Telefunken FuMG-62D Würzburg fire control/ground-controlled interception radar during the Operation Biting raid at Bruneval on France’s Normandy coast. The theft gave British engineers and scientists the chance to rummage around the radar’s innermost workings which betrayed the secrets necessary to devise electronic countermeasures to jam the FuMG-62D.
While the capture of a 96K6 is useful, the secrets its radar might yield could be limited. It seems all but certain Mother Russia will have supplied export variants of the Pantsir-S1 with less sophisticated versions of the 2RL80 and 1RS2-1 radars compared to those used by Russia’s armed forces.
The UAE Pantsir-S1 now in American hands “is a pretty basic system,” argues Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies programme at the CNA Corporation: “I don’t really see tremendous insights coming from (the US) getting its hands on one.” He says that the radars equipping the UAE’s Pantsir-S1s need modernising owing to the fact they use technology developed in the 1990s and are now very much legacy systems. He adds that the Russian armed forces have already upgraded the radars on their 96K6 systems. That said, owning a Pantsir-S1 could confirm or scotch existing intelligence estimates of the system, Mr. Kofman observes. Shortcomings in the radar may also indicate the potential direction of travel for the Russian radar upgrade. Ultimately though, “an export variant can only tell you so much because it is often a lobotomised version in terms of performance.”