Russian Air Defense: Showcasing Achievements, Silencing Problems (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 66

Russian Pantsir-S1 air-defense system (foreground) (Source: Sputnik News)

*To read Part One, please click here.


Historically, the Air and Missile Defense Forces (Voyska Protivovozdushnoy i Protivoraketnoy Oborony—PVO-PRO) have constituted one of the main strengths of the Soviet/Russian Armed Forces and an indispensable national security element (, June 27, 2012). From late 2018 to early 2019, Russia has showcased a number of new achievements that will purportedly reinforce its existing PVO-PRO systems, with special emphasis placed on short- and medium-range complexes (see Part One in EDM, April 30). However, in spite of the highly publicized progress, some leading Russian military experts have voiced concerns and posed serious questions about the ostensible “omnipotence” of the Russian PVO-PRO systems.

In a relatively recent article published by Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, leading Russian military expert Alexander Khramchikhin expresses his doubts, stating that the declared invincibility of the Russian PVO-PRO might in fact seriously diverge from reality. Specifically, Khramchikhin suggests that both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO—with the United States as its leading force) and China (whose strategic alliance with Russia, he says, is “nothing but rhetoric”) are capable of overcoming or destroying Russia’s PVO-PRO system. Regarding the former opponent, the expert argues that, in case of hostilities, the US can easily turn quantity into quality “by simply ‘pounding’ Russian anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems with large numbers of Tomahawks, AGM-86, AGM-158, [and] JASSM-ER [cruise missiles]… Aside from this, QF-16А/Сs [remote-control-capable drones built from aging F-16 fighter jet platforms], which are formally considered to be nothing but [full-scale] aerial [practice] targets, will most certainly be used as unmanned combat aerial vehicles [UCAV] for delivering maximum damage to the Russian PVO-PRO system… This will be primarily directed at our S-300/400 systems to exhaust their ammunition and make them useless targets that can be easily destroyed” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 29).

Khramchikhin writes that, based on elementary mathematical calculations, Russia simply does not have enough PVO-PRO systems to ward off a massive aerial attack from a much stronger adversary, such as the US. He goes on to suggest that “Americans can allow themselves to ‘waste’ several hundred missiles and QF-16s (that have already become relatively obsolete) to destroy every regiment (especially, those located outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and have no ‘backing’ from other regiments). Yes, this is quite expensive, but they have enough money” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 29).

In addition, Khramchikhin admits that China also has a huge arsenal of various types of ballistic and cruise missiles (such as the DH-10/CJ-10), as well as outdated Shenyang J-6 and J-7 fighters that “are already being transformed into UCAVs for the same purpose: delivering maximum damage against a strong PVO-PRO system.” According to Khramchikhin, “[T]his problem is becoming more and more serious… [W]e can actually witness it now unfolding on a limited scale in Syria” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, March 29). Incidentally, as Khramchihin contended last year, it is on Russia’s eastern flank where existing PVO-PRO systems reveal multiple flaws and “inadequacy with regard to the challenges faced by Russia” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, November 22, 2018).

At the same time, Russia’s Syrian experience unravels some of the most problematic aspects, from Moscow’s point of view. First, as noted by Russian analysts, both Russians and Syrians, while commenting on actions of Israeli aviation, have purposefully concentrated on “the number of missiles destroyed by the Syrian PVO-PRO systems. But they have notably refrained from any comments on the fact that Israeli missiles were still ultimately able to overcome the system itself [e.g., the December 25, 2018, attack on Syrian military facilities]” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 15, 2019). On the other hand, after the Israeli attack on objects located in Hama and around Masiaf, the Syrian side claimed that “our PVO systems intercepted and destroyed some of the enemy’s missiles before they could reach their targets.” Yet, Russian sources begrudgingly admitted that some of the missiles managed to inflict damage, wounding three military persons and six civilians and destroying a number of facilities that allegedly stored Iranian missiles (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 13).

Commenting on this, Russian information outlets specializing in military affairs reduced the reason for Israeli success to the fact that “unlike in Russia, Syria lacks a strong system of radio detection and ranging, which, in a way, debilitates the capabilities of its PVO-PRO systems… They [Syria’s PVO-PRO complexes] do not constitute a multi-layered defense system that would be able to cover critically important military and civilian infrastructure… That is why, their [Syria’s] defense system has a number of ‘blank spots’… This tactic has started to be implemented by Israel upon the deployment of S-300s” (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 20).

That being said, the above-mentioned Israeli attack (April 13) and another episode that occurred in January 2019, causing the destruction of a Pantsir-S1 air-defense system in Syria (, January 21), have raised a number of reasonable questions about the actual capabilities of Russia’s much-promoted medium- and short-range anti-aircraft and missile-defense complexes. Some conservative pro-Kremlin information outlets argue that the Israeli supersonic, long-range air-to-ground assault missile Rampage (nicknamed after the January episode “the Pantsir destroyer”) is indeed nothing but “a marketing trick” (, April 16). But if that is actually the case, then what led to the destruction of the Pantsir-S1? Is that Pantsir-S1 not as invulnerable as Moscow contends, or was the problem due to operational incompetence by the Syrian side? Russian sources do not provide a clear answer to this issue. Conversely, if—as routinely stated by other Russian military experts—the Israeli Rampage “can be targeted by the Buk-M2, the Tor-M2, and the Pantsir-S1” (Rossyiskaya Gazeta, April 20), it remains unclear why the Pantsir-S1, and the Buk-M2 (present in the theater) failed to act accordingly.

The attempted explanations presented by the Russians have mostly been limited to implicit “blame the Syrians” rhetoric (resembling the routine cases of Soviet cover-ups for the growing number of failures in the Middle East from the second-half of the 1970s onward—see, April 12), or suggestions that the Pantsir-S1 was not set to a combat position when needed, thus precluding its ability to react in time.

These arguments, however, are hardly commensurate with other episodes, such as the series of attacks on the Russian Armed Forces stationed at the Khmeimim airbase, in Syria, between the end of 2017 and early 2018 (see EDM, January 17, 2018). That particular episode also witnessed difficulties in the Pantsir-S1 rendering an adequate and timely response (, January 4, 2018). It is thus possible to conclude that, while Russian POV-PRO systems have improved, they continue to be hampered by reoccurring technical difficulties.