The Israeli air strikes in Syria last week have made some headlines in the Russian media. The attacks caused serious damages to the Syrian air defenses which consist of Russian produced weapons. The debate is whether the incident says something about the quality of Russia’s air defense technology.
How could these systems fail to protect themselves against an air strike? This question is especially apt in the light that last month the Russian Ministry of Defense made remarkable claims about outstanding performance by the Syrian air defense systems during missile strikes by USA, France, and Britain.
Israel apparently destroyed S-75, S-200, Buk, and Pantsir-S components. The first three are somewhat old technology, but Pantsir-S is considered a state-of-the-art medium range air defense system. Israel apparently felt the urge to brag about the accomplishment, so they published this video of the missile impacting the Pantsir-S.
This is not good news for the Russian weapon industry, which uses Syria as a showroom for their products to potential buyers. Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kurier (The Military-Industrial Courier) even speculates that Israel’s goal with the publication of the video was to damage the reputation of Russian air defense technology.
So in Russia there is a strong incentive to explain the Syrian fiasco in a way that saves the honor of the Russian weapon systems.
The newspaper Vzglyad has covered the incident closely, for example in this article under the title Who is to blame for the destruction of Buk and Pantsir in Syria. I will not go into all the details, but the newspaper finds that the Syrians are to blame. Had the equipment been manned with Russian professionals, it would have performed much better. (That may well be correct.)
After pictures of the damaged Pantsir-S have shown up, it seems clear that the system was inactive when the missile hit. The radar was in stowed position, so it has not been in use at the time of impact. All missile tubes were empty, so the Pantsir has probably fired all missiles and was waiting for resupplies. However, Pantsir-S is a combined gun and missile system, so just because the missiles were fired, it doesn’t mean that the system was defenseless.
Air defense can be organized as area defense or as point defense, and different systems can be distributed to complement each other. Air defense systems are inherently vulnerable as targets of an air strike, so it is important that different systems cover each other. In addition, passive measures like camouflage are essential for keeping the vehicles safe, especially when the adversary uses UAVs.
It appears that the Syrian forces neglected to take measures to coordinate their air defense. When it was hit, the Pantsir-S was inactive, uncamouflaged, standing still in the open with no cover from other air defense systems.
The crew of the Pantsir-S wasn’t even at the vehicle when the missile stroke. A lieutenant can be seen on the video running towards the cabin of the truck when he saw the incoming missile. Perhaps he thought there would be time to move the vehicle before the missile hit. He paid with his life for that piece of bravery which only accentuates that the Syrians neglected to take proper precautions before the incident.
So for now, the honor of the Pantsir-S weapon systems seems intact.