Key point: Drones are useful for overwhelming air defenses.
On January 21, Iranian, Syrian and Israeli forces unleashed a hail of missiles upon each other in what is becoming yet another flare-up of violence along the Syria-Israel border. Afterwards, the Israeli Defense Force released a video depicting unidentified munitions eliminating two or three short-range air defense systems—apparently including Russia’s latest short-range system, the Pantsir-S2.
In fact, the recent raids may reveal improvements to Syria’s air defense forces due to ongoing Russian training and weapons transfers. However, they also reveal Israel’s continuing ability to defeat, including through likely use of kamikaze-drones.
The succession of tit-for-tat attacks apparently began with the launch of a Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missile by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, targeting an Israeli ski-resort on Mount Hebron in the Golan Heights. As the solid-fuel rocket blazed towards to the snowy mountain, it was intercepted and destroyed by two missiles from the Israel Iron Dome air defense system, as you can see in this video.
Prior to Russia’s intervention in 2015, intervening IRGC troops played a critical role in rescuing Bashar al-Assad’s faltering regime. In addition to combating Syrian rebels, the IRGC has established an extensive network of bases on Syrian soil to exert military pressure on Israel and furnish assistance to Hezbollah, which is supported by both Syria and Iran.
In response, Israeli warplanes have launched hundreds of strikes on targets in Syria since the start of the civil war, seeking to disrupt arms transfers to Hezbollah and the buildup of Iranian forces. Despite frequently encountering Syrian anti-aircraft fire, only a single Israeli F-16 has been lost, shot down in February 2018 by an S-200 surface-to-air missile. That year alone, the IDF struck targets in Syria with over 2,000 missiles.
Hours after the IRGC’s missile attack, the IDF retaliated with its most extensive attack to date. According to the Israeli periodical Debka, however, they did not target the IRGC battery that launched the attack. A hail of missiles instead descended upon Damascus International Airport and nearby weapon stores.
Syrian air defense troops reportedly fired dozens of missiles in response, primarily medium-range missiles from Buk air defense systems (SA-17), and 57E6 missiles from short-range Pantsir-S1 (SA-22) systems.
Syria’s Sana state news agency later claimed destruction of thirty Israeli missiles. A video in Damascus shows the missiles arcing into the night sky. At least five mid-air explosions can be seen in the video, though these are not necessarily the results of successful intercepts.
Though Syrian government statements are less than trustworthy, multiple sources suggest the defenses may have impeded the initial Israeli attack. The IDF then unleashed a second wave of strikes targeting the air-defense batteries themselves.
You can see the video released by the IDF of the attack here.
In the first part of the clip, an unidentifiable system can be seen rapidly firing off two missiles in a frantic effort to defend itself from multiple incoming munitions. Whether the two missiles manage to hit anything is unclear, as the system abruptly erupts in flames, apparently struck by an unseen munition before the point-of-view weapon impacts.
In the second part, an apparently inactive Pantsir system mounted on its 8 x 8 truck can be seen sitting placidly as the Israeli munition plunges towards it.
Syrian military commentator Mohammed Salah Alftayeh brought to the author’s attention that the system in question appears to be a Pantsir-S2—an improved variant of the Pantsir-S1 in wide-scale service with both Russian and Syrian troops.
The Pantsir-S2 entered Russian military service in 2015, capable of employing 57E6-E missiles with a fifty percent greater engagement range of 18.6 miles, and slightly longer radar-detection range of twenty-five miles. Though Russia has not announced combat-testing of the Pantsir-S2 in Syria, it has nonetheless been spotted in media footage released by the Syrian government. The S2 model can be visually distinguished by its retractable “two-faced” SOTS S-band radar, in contrast to the rectangular flat-panel radar on the S1.
You can see the difference visually highlighted in this post by Alftayeh.
Reportedly two Pantsir and one older 9K33 Osa (SA-8) short-range air defense system were destroyed, and four Syrian personnel killed. According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the Israeli strikes collectively killed twenty-one persons, including twelve Iranian soldiers.
Why was Pantsir’s radar visibly folded-down in an active state, and its crew unresponsive to the incoming attack? The open-source intelligence website T-Intelligence claims that the system was abandoned by its crew after expending the last of its missiles. Alternately, the crew may have been off-duty, and the system left unmanned due to a lack of personnel.
The Pantsir-S’s performance has received scrutiny, as the truck-born short-range air-defense system—which combines rapid-firing thirty-millimeter autocannons with twelve Mach 3 missiles remotely guided using the truck’s radar—seems ideal for countering both low-altitude standoff cruise missiles and kamikaze drones which are proliferating in the twenty-first century. In January 2018, the Pantsir reportedly had some success in repelling a drone-swarm attack at Hmeimim airbase. However, later reports in 2018 implied it performed poorly compared to the Tor-missile system in anti-drone engagements.
The IDF also recorded the destruction of a Pantsir-S1 during a massive series of strikes in May. To be fair, a prudent air force can safely target any short-range air defense systems using stand-off weapons. However, the Pantsir theoretically should have had a shot at shooting down the incoming missiles.
It appears the air defense batteries were overwhelmed by a saturation attack. The implication, then, is that Syrian air defenses have made Israeli attacks more expensive by requiring expenditure of additional and more expensive munitions, but they remain incapable of halting the Israeli strikes.
In Alftayeh’s estimation, “Syrian SAMs shoot down a good percentage of the targets detected by the radars but then a new wave of missiles/smart bombs follows, and perhaps a third and a fourth one. The new waves most of the time succeed in achieving their goals, either striking warehouses or striking the SAM launchers and their radars.”
Syrian troops reported in social media the munitions were relatively slow, and left winged debris. According to Alftayeh, the anti-SAM weapon was likely an Israeli-built Harop (Harpy 2) kamikaze drone, which can either be remotely piloted, or set to automatically home in on radar emissions, detonating a seventy-pound explosive on impact. The Harop has a maximum speed of 115 miles per hour, and can loiter over the battlefield for six hours.
The IDF may have used additional types of weapons, including GPS-guided Delilah cruise missiles, which also have man-in-the-loop capabilities. carried by F-16s, or bombs or glide-bombs fitted with a hi-tech SPICE kit including dual GPS and electro-optical guidance.
Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to judge the Pantsir’s effectiveness given the extent of the force leveraged against it by experienced and well-equipped Israeli forces. In the coming months, Syria may eventually activate long-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles systems which may impose additional risks and costs on Israeli strikes. However, this seems unlikely to bring a halt to the long-running contest of forces between Israel, Iran and Syria.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. (This first appeared earlier in 2019.)