Russian expert Viktor Murakhovsky recently was caught in a controversy when he claimed that the Russian Pantsir-S1 air defense system suffered from major drawbacks and flaws when defending from attacks on the Khmeimim Airbase in Syria.
According to his post, Pantsirs were only 19 percent effective. In contrast, the Tor-M2U system was 80 percent effective.
From these statistics alone, the Tor sounds like it should be taking over for the Pantsir. But what for was the Tor originally intended? What are its capabilities? Why did it massively outperform the Pantsir in Syria?
The Tor’s development began in 1975 as a replacement for the wheeled Osa air defense system as a division-level air defense system. Planes were flying lower with innovations such as terrain-following radar, and air defense systems needed to be more nimble and faster to react.
Precision guided munitions such as the Walleye and air-launched cruise missiles were also upcoming threats at the time. A new system was necessary to counter all of these threats.
The design that would emerge to counter this threat is the Tor missile system, adopted in 1985. Similar to the Osa it replaced, the Tor is completely self-contained. Missiles, tracking radar, and search radar are all integrated into one vehicle.
In order to be more nimble and reactive, the Tor system uses a straight vertical launch, similar to the S-300. Eight missiles are stored in vertical launch canisters.
When a missile is launched, it is ejected vertically from the canister by a gas catapult. The wings of the missile unfold as it leaves.
Once the missile is 20 meters above the launcher, special gas generators at the tip and base of the missiles orient the missile in the direction of the target. Once the missile is aligned, the rocket motor ignites.
This allows the Tor to engage a target within 10 seconds while on the move, and within 8 seconds from a short stop.
The Tor integrates a PESA radar, which allows for faster and more precise beam control than the earlier Osa system. However, the original Tor only has one engagement channel, so only one missile can be guided at a time.
This was upgraded in the Tor-M1, which entered service in 1991. This gave the Tor two guidance channels and enhanced its ability to engage a more diverse target set, including laser-guided bombs. It also slightly lowered the reaction time of the Tor, due to the integration of newer, faster computers.
The Tor-M2 builds on this even further. One source states that it can engage 4 targets simultaneously, others state that it can engage 10. Some sources state that Tor-M2 has a limited capability to engage artillery rockets, similar to the Israeli Iron Dome.
Tor is fielded fairly widely in the Russian Army on a variety of chassis. In addition to the standard tracked chassis, versions exist for arctic conditions, as well as wheeled chassis for export. The entire system has been successfully navalized.
So why did Tor do so much better than the Pantsir? As Tor is meant to be a divisional level system as opposed to point defense like the Pantsir, it has a more powerful radar, which could probably pick up an incoming contact before the Pantsir.
Tor’s missiles are also likely more agile than Pantsir, and the vertical launch is a significant asset when engaging multiple targets coming in from different directions as the launcher doesn’t have to rotate before launching the missile (although it still must rotate to guide it).
Technical reasons aside, the Tor might also have been tasked to destroy easier targets than the Pantsir.
Given the Pantsir’s role as point defense, it might have been tasked to engage super small drones and similar targets outside of Tor’s engagement envelope. Such targets are very hard to hit, which may have skewed the effectiveness rating.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national-security issues.