The Pantsir S1 in Syria

During the recent counter-offensive in Idlib, also known as “Operation Spring Shield”, the Russian-produced air defense system Pantsir-S1 has made some headlines – once again. Praised as a versatile short range air defense system (SHORAD) with state-of-the-art technology, the Pantsir-S1’s combat record in Syria has nonetheless been underwhelming according to some pundits. Whether this is due to a deficient system or involves broader military-strategic shortcomings is less clear however. This post thus takes stock with the Pantsir-S1 performance in the Syrian context and attempts to offer a more nuanced assessment thereof.

The Pantsir-S1 is a SHORAD that boasts a mobile radar system, short surface-to-air missiles and automatic anti-aircraft cannons. It can either be deployed as an auxiliary force for ground troops or as a stationary unit protecting military bases from incoming air strikes – or so the story goes.

According to a number of news articles and pundits, the Pantsir has not quite lived up to its promises in Syria. Not only did it fail to intercept frequent Israeli raids and has struggled to detect small-scale drones. Two Pantsir-S1 units were even directly taken on and and destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in April 2018 and January 2019 respectively. Although Russian sources were quick to point out alternatively that the unit was either not active at the time or had run out of ammunition when it was hit, the incidents raised some questions about the system’s combat readiness. With the Turkish “Operation Spring Shield” in the Idlib in February 2020 this discussion gained further traction; footage published by the Turkish government apparently showed Turkish drones picking off at least two fully operating Pantsir units, one on February 28 and the other on March 3.

In light of such incidents, the questions remains whether the Pantsir-S1 is indeed not up for the task to protect bases and ground troops in Syria, or if underlying strategic failures and are at play. In fact, the units destroyed so far belonged to the the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and were not the Russian ones protecting the Hmeimim air base – according to French Press TV even the US asked the Iraq military to deploy a Pantsir-S1 to protect Camp Taj from incoming missile attacks by Iran and its proxies.

Whereas some pundits took the successful destruction of Pantsirs in Syria as a sign of its technical deficiencies, others suggest that for the the system to fully leverage its capabilities, it must be deployed in concert with mid- and long-range air defense systems. Together they form a air defense complex that requires a more sophisticated attack in order to overcome the various systems. From this perspective, the apparent failure of the Pantisr in Syria might as well be the absence of strategic vision on the part of the SAA to deploy it as an integral part of a wider defense complex.

A look at Russia’s air defense strategy supports this assumption. Rather than stand-alone units, SHOAD such as the Pantsir-S1 are conceived as but the lowest tier in an integrated air defense that includes mid- and long-range systems as well.

Whether the conflict theater in Syria has exposed the Pantsir-S1’s technical deficiencies or if its combat record is rather the result of human error and a lack of strategic awareness thus remains open for debate, one that should be continued.

This post was originally written in May 2020.