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While the S-400 has captured the headlines, in part because the maps showing the system’s impressive engagement radius make good copy, in actuality the S-400 is the tip of the iceberg that is the integrated, multi-layer, air defense network that Russia has emplaced in Syria, mainly to protect its bases in Tartus and Hmeimim, but also forward airfields and own forces in the field.
The bottom, and also the most active, layer of that network is the Pantsir-S short-range air defense system which closes the gaps that will inevitably be left by the far more powerful S-400 and Buk-M2 weapons. The complex relief of Syria and of course the Earth’s curvature mean that the main effect of the long-range weapons is to force enemy aircraft to very low altitudes in order to stay out of the S-400 kill zones and to rely on GPS-guided stand-off munitions such as JASSM, JDAM, and SDB, possibly using toss-bombing techniques to extend the range of the gliding bombs.
While the S-400 can shoot down cruise missiles and even gliding bombs, it is gross overkill to use its powerful and also relatively scarce missiles against such puny targets. Instead, this is the mission for which the Pantsir-S was designed from the outset. Since each individual Pantsir-S vehicle carries 12 57E6 radio command guided, 20km range missiles and two 30mm 2A38 cannon with 700 rounds per gun and a rate of fire of 2500 shots per minute, it closes the low-altitude gaps of the S-400 and generates sufficient short-range missile and gun firepower to shoot down incoming missiles and munitions, thus allowing the S-400 to keep enemy manned aircraft at bay.
It is indeed a measure of the S-400’s effectiveness that kept it from having to fire a single missile in anger in Syria. So instead the aerial threats to Russian forces in theater have taken a different form, one which has kept the Pantsir-S vehicles quite busy. In 2017 alone Pantsir-S vehicles in Syria so far destroyed 12 aerial vehicles, all of them with missiles. Two of them were probably innocuous–drifting balloons, though given the nature of the conflict, and the fact they were both downed a few days apart in June over Tartus and Hmeimim, these balloons may have been fitted out with surveillance equipment to observe Russian military facilities. Both were destroyed at close to the missiles’ maximum range. Four of the targets were artillery rockets shot down over Hmeimim and Masyaf in Hama Province, all of them in March. The remainders are surveillance drones, including one Turkish-manufactured Bayraktar drone downed near Tartus on May 11, three Israeli-manufactured Heron drones downed near Tartus and Masyaf in April, May, and July of this year, one unspecified mini-drone over Masyaf and (drumroll please) a single RQ-21A Blackjack UAV downed near Tartus on May 27, 2017. That last downing is particularly interesting, since the Blackjack only entered service in 2016 and its sole confirmed users are Canada and…the United States Navy and Marine Corps. They are known to have been deployed by the USMC to Iraq in 2016, but can also be operated from naval vessels. Its 16-hour endurance presumably allows it to have been possibly launched from the British airbase in Cyprus.
These incidents indicate that there are still many parties unhappy with the course the war in Syria has taken, which leaves open the possibility of a serious escalation. They also show that the Russian air defenders are keeping their eyes and ears open, ready to bring down any violators of the Syrian airspace. As the proliferation of drones is only likely to increase in the coming years, the Tula-based KBT is already working on an improved version of the Pantsir, designated the Pantsir-SM, incorporating the experience gathered during its service in Syria. The improvements include a micro-missile specifically designed to defeat enemy drones, with four such weapons being carried within an individual 57E6 missile tube, thus reducing engagement cost and increasing the volume of fire against the drone swarms of the future.
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