Can Russia’s Pantsir Air Defense System Grow Longer Claws to Defeat the Drones that Are Trouncing It?: Air defense doesn’t lend itself to one-size-fits-all solutions. As Russia continues its protracted roll-out of the new S-500 surface to air missile optimized for ballistic missile defense in the 2020s, it’s also planning to field new short-range air defenses aimed at shoring up growing threats posed to missiles and drones flying at much lower altitudes.
Amongst the new anti-aircraft systems include 2S38 Derivatsiya armored vehicle packing a powerful rapid-firing 57-millimeter gun (profiled in a separate article)—but also new missiles and tracked variant of the Pantsir-S gun/missile system, which has experienced significant operational setbacks in contests with Turkish and Israeli drones and missiles.
Tracks for the Pantsir
The Pantsir-S combines a truck chassis bristling with both radar and electrooptical sensors, twelve radio command-guided missiles, and two rapid-firing 30-millimeter 2A38 autocannons. The basic model’s supersonic 57E6 missiles can attain respectably high maximum altitudes of 33,000-49,000 feet, and engage targets out to 20 kilometers (12 miles), while the cannons provide an additional last-ditch layer of protection.
Pantsirs have been exported to over a dozen countries, and special variants have been developed for use in arctic climates and on Russian corvettes. But in Russian service, the Pantsir is primarily operated by the PVO (Air Defense Troops) to provide close defense for other air defenses: long-range S-400 air defense missile units and airbases full of fighters and bombers. Those are susceptible to attack from low-flying missiles and kamikaze drones using terrain to mask their approach from radar.
In 2022, Russia is moving forward to procure a new tracked Pantsir-SM-SV model developed to provided close air defense to the Ground Force’s own top-tier (or ‘frontal’) air defense system, the S-300V4 (NATO codename SA-23 Gladiator) which is geared for high-altitude engagement over long distances, including intercepting ballistic missiles, and is also tracked.
Tracked mobility should allow a Pantsir to deploy into more rugged terrain—particularly overlooking areas where steep inclines create radar ‘dead zones’ hostile aircraft and missiles might exploit to close the distance to their targets without being detected.
However, what may prove more important is the introduction of enhanced radar and two new missiles that theoretically promise to lengthen the Pantsir’s claws to against both low- and high-end opponents that have battered the system’s reputation in Libya and Syria.
First, Russian sources allege Pantsirs struggled to detect and shoot down small, crude kamikaze drones employed by Syrian insurgents against Russian bases—allegedly performing worse than the Army’s Tor system in the same role.
This is not a purely niche issue, as state-level actors are procuring similar small loitering munitions of greater sophistication as well as larger, longer-range kamikaze drones packing a heavier punch. Indeed, multiple videos show Israeli Harops kamikaze drones destroying Pantsirs operated by Syria’s military.
More prominently, in 2020 Pantsirs were defeated in conflicts with Turkish missile-armed Bayraktar combat drones—and smaller numbers of larger Anka-S drones—first in western Libya and around Syria’s Idlib province. And that despite the Pantsir’s missiles easily out-ranging the MAM-L munitions used by the Bayraktar (range 5-8 miles).
To be fair, the conflict wasn’t strictly one-sided: in Libya, reportedly, between 9 and 15 Pantsirs supporting the LNA faction of Libya’s civil war were destroyed against 14 Bayraktars and two Ankas shot down. The Pantsirs had been supplied via the UAE and operated by Russian Wagner mercenaries.
With the Pantsirs disabled, Bayraktars went on to destroy LNA Wing Loong drones and aircraft on the ground and pick off self-propelled artillery, forcing the LNA to withdraw from its siege of Tripoli. One of the Pantsirs abandoned by Wagner was then airlifted out by a USAF C-17 transport to Germany for study by the U.S. military in June.
Countering a Syrian government offensive in Idlib province, three Bayraktars and an Anka-S were downed (not necessarily by Pantsirs), in exchange for two Syrian government Pantsirs, a few more air defense systems, and dozens of Syrian government armored vehicles destroyed.
Bayraktar drones are not strictly cheap at a cost of $5-10 million each, but the Pantsirs are reportedly more expensive ($10-15 million) and have a human crew. Ultimately, Turkey had the numbers and loss tolerance to tradeoff Bayraktars against Pantsirs with ample striking power left to inflict decisive levels of destruction on enemy vehicles and airbases.
Reportedly, in Libya Bayraktars would lurk out of range of Pantsirs, waiting for opportunities to pounce on inactive systems. Jamming by Turkish Koral electronic warfare vehicles also debilitated air defense radars, and by one account long-range precision artillery strikes also contributed to Pantsir losses. That implies the task of debilitating defenses like the Pantsir is best done by ground- and air-based platforms working in tandem.
According to the same report, Pantsir operators in Libya eventually learned to deactivate their radars and rely on electro-optical sensors to avoid being detected, jammed, and targeted for destruction. That resulted in a few more drone kills, but too late to make a difference.
Improving the Pantsir
Given these adverse outcomes, Russia hopes to upgrade the Pantsir to deal with Bayraktar-like threats without having to resort to higher-tier medium-range air defenses like the Buk. That implies enhancing the Pantsir’s ability to both detect and shoot down drones despite their inherently small radar signature.
Supposedly the improved phased-array radar on the Pantsir-SM boosts the maximum detection range to 75 kilometers (46 miles), though detection of drones undoubtedly would occur at shorter distances.
That enhancement combines with a new two-stage 57E6M-E missile with a slant range of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), or some sources claim even 40 kilometers and engagement ceiling of 59,000 feet. Speed is increased speed by 30% to a blistering Mach 5, allowing interception of targets traveling at up to Mach 2.9, or one kilometer per second.
While the Pantsir already outranges the Bayraktar’s laser-guided MAM-L, longer detection and engagement distance might allow the Pantsir to force lurking UCAVs further back, potentially outside of effective observation range.
The increased velocity and ceiling also imply the Pantsir could threaten even to high-flying supersonic jets and potentially intercept attacks from supersonic land-attack missiles. Versus the latter, the Pantsir’s would still need to detect the missile’s small radar signature far enough in advance to allow time to engage, perhaps with the assistance of cueing by more powerful radars in an integrated air defense system.
The 57E6M-E is reportedly pricey and has a lengthy minimum engagement range (1.2 kilometers), so it will be complemented by the older 20-kilometer range 57E6 missiles. However, for countering cheap and numerous small drone threats, there’s also a new ‘mini-missile’ in development meant to serve as a cost-efficient killer of small drones like those harrying Russian bases in Syria out to a range of 5-7 kilometers (3-4.3 miles).
Reports claim either three or four of these small-diameter missiles could be stuffed into each of the Pantsir’s twelve launch canisters. That implies an individual Pantsir could carry up to 36 or 48 mini-missiles, though more likely a mix of different missile types would be carried.
On paper, the improved radar and missiles could give the Pantsir-SM series greatly improved range and flexibility. However, that still depends on whether the new radar has the resolution to detect small drones the prior model struggled to. That’s also complicated by the Libyan experience suggesting Pantsirs proved far more survivable with their radars deactivated. Adversaries of the Pantsir may also attempt to use electronic warfare to target the radio-command guidance signals directing the 57E6 missiles.
Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.