Pantsir: How America Got Its Hands on Russia's Killer Air Defense System

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January 28, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: LibyaRussiaAmericaPantsirEspionage

Pantsir: How America Got Its Hands on Russia's Killer Air Defense System

This is a wild tale of Russian mercenaries, Libyan rebels, and clandestine flights to Europe.

The U.S. Air Force transported a Russian-made Pantsir air defense system out of Libya last summer, The Times reported, stating that an Air Force C-17 Globemaster flew to Zuwara airport, west of Tripoli, loaded the Pantsir, and flew onward to Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Intelligence Value

Though the immediate reason for removing the Pantsir from Libya was likely to ensure the air defense system didn’t fall into nefarious hand and be used against targets like civilian airliners, there could also be an intelligence incentive for the United States.

“Export versions, such as the one captured in Libya,” The Times explained, “are supposedly stripped of a carefully guarded identification friend or foe database with the transponder codes for all Russian air force jets. The system is capable of engaging multiple targets from low altitudes up to 50,000 feet and has a range of about 20 miles.”

The Times quoted a Russian official that stated the Pantsir would be of limited intelligence value, as the United States could examine the Pantsir in the United Arab Emirates, as the UAE also fields the system.

Still, if the United States wanted simply to eliminate the potential threat a Russian air defense system posed in the hands of one of the myriad rebel factions in war-torn Libya, destroying it would have been easier than flying it to Germany from Libya.

Having access to an intact and functioning Pantsir air defense system could quite useful for American training scenarios by providing real-world opposing force capabilities, and not just simulations. Still, as an effective air defense system, the Pantsir’s track record is a mixed bag, and a number of Pantsirs have been lost in combat in both Syria and Libya. The system has been upgraded several times, with export variants generally less capable than those made for Russian forces.

Direct Messaging

Even if this particular Pantsir’s capabilities are more limited compared to upgraded air defense models, it seems that the system did provide enough of an incentive to be whisked out of the country—even just to send a message.

In 2019, an American Reaper drone was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft system operated either by Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, or by members of Wagner, a Russian mercenary groupaccording U.S. Africa Command. Taking the Pantsir out of Libya may have been a message to Russian forces in Libya.

Postscript

The fact that the United States recovered the Pantsir indicated that there is some useful information to be gleaned from the air defense system, despite Russian statements to the contrary. 

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Image: Reuters.