A Pantsir-S surface-to-air missile system fires a missile during the International Army Games 2017 outside Astrakhan, Russia, August 5, 2017Photo by Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

by John V. Parachini and Peter A. Wilson

July 2, 2020

While most countries struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil wars in Syria and Libya have become battlegrounds for foreign states backing different local sides. External powers have intervened in both civil wars supplying advanced conventional weapons that have intensified the conflicts, but not all the weapons have performed as claimed. Perhaps the most startling example of this is how ineffective modern Russian air defense systems have been at countering drones and low-flying missiles. In the face-off between expensive air defensive systems and lower cost offensive drones and low-flying missiles, the offense is winning.

In recent weeks, drones supplied by Turkey (PDF) in support of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord have reportedly destroyed the Russian Pantsir short-range air defense systems (SHORADS) that the opposition Libyan National Army (LNA) used to protect their forces. The inability of the LNA to protect their forces has turned the tide of the conflict and is a reminder of how difficult effective air defense is in an era of comparatively inexpensive armed drones and precision guided low-flying cruise missiles.

The LNA is not alone in having difficulty employing air defense systems effectively. The Syrian regime is protected by several Russian-origin air defense systems, including the S-300, S-400 High Altitude Air Defense Systems (HIMADS), Buk-M1 medium-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, and Pantsir SHORADS. The Israeli Air Force has regularly defeated these systems through the combined use of electronic warfare, anti-radiation missiles, and stand-off precision guided munitions. Many of the tactics, techniques, and procedures used to defeat SHORADS in Libya were tested during the Turkish military’s brief 2020 winter campaign in Idlib Province during which Turkey destroyed Pantsir SHORAD and Buk-M1 medium-range SAM systems operated by the Assad Regime. Some of the destroyed Syrian and Libyan Pantsir systems appeared to be operational in the field, while others were being moved on flatbed trailers or hiding under sheds at the time they were knocked out. This shows how good intelligence aiding offensive attackers can easily neutralize defensive systems.

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