The S-400–Pantsir ‘Tandem’: The New-Old Feature of Russian A2/AD Capabilities

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 14

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

The Pantsir (NATO classification: SA-22 Greyhound), produced by the Russian Military Industrial Complex, is a unique mobile short- to medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapon system that has no known analogues in the United States Armed Forces. On January 23, the Russian side stated that the Pantsir has been additionally equipped with a new type of missile, which, due to its small size, is nicknamed “gvozd” (a nail). The new missile is designed to deal with a range of small targets, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) seen as the main priority. In the future, the gvozd is expected to become the main defense against high-precision aerial weaponry (Izvestiya, January 23).

The Pantsir’s new missile was first presented during International Military-Technical Forum “Army-2017.” This weapon’s rapid integration into the Russian Armed Forces since its official unveiling in August of last year was undoubtedly precipitated by Russia’s experience in the Syrian civil war (namely, as a consequence of the challenges and threats faced by Russian troops). And the most recent drone attack on the Russian Hmeimim airbase in Syria, in early January (see EDM, January 11, 16, 16, 17), most likely played a decisive role in speeding up its rollout. Yet, the fact that the gvozd missile was demonstrated as early as August 2017 suggests that the Russian side had been preparing to introduce this type of armament for some time (Izvestiya, January 23).

Responding to this news, prominent Russian military expert Victor Litovkin emphasized the fact that the “cost” of an attack (against an aircraft, helicopter or cruise missile) carried out by the Pantsir is far less expensive compared to other types of anti-air weaponry. He also noted that the United States does not have a similar type of munition, because of the “weakness [i.e., lack of air assets] of American opponents in local and regional campaigns waged by the US Armed Forces” (, January 24, 2018).

In his comment, the editor-in-chief of the military magazine Natsionalnaja Oborona, Igor Korotchenkov, drew on the Soviet historical experience (namely, the Cold War period) to explain Russia’s continued supremacy in production of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) elements. Korotchenkov noted that in contrast to the United States, which focused on military containment strategies (with particular emphasis on strategic aviation), “the Soviet side diverted huge resources for the development of anti-ballistic missiles, which was in many ways influenced by [Joseph] Stalin and [chief of the secret police Lavrenty] Beria” (TASS, January 23).

The principle of “asymmetricity” in Russian military thought was further crystallized by the worsening relations between Russia and the West from 2012 onward. And that thinking clearly hastened Moscow’s missile-defense development schedules. For instance, it took Russia merely three years (since the emergence of the first Pantsir in 2012) to dramatically improve the capabilities of the system and equip 19 units with this weaponry (by 2017). Also, by 2019, the Pantsir is to be further augmented through the integration of a new type of missile and a more modern detection system, which will allow it to detect targets at a range of 75 kilometers (currently, 40 km) and destroy them at ranges of 40 km (presently, 20 km). This information was corroborated during the Dubai Airshow 2017, where officials stated that “the Russian side is about to create a new modification to the Pantsir, which will make it 1.5–2 times superior to the currently existing model” (TASS, November 12, 2017).

In particular, it is worth pointing out this air-defense system’s new “Arctic model” (Pantsir-SA), first demonstrated publicly on May 9, 2017, during Victory Day celebrations on Red Square. The Pantsir-SA is now reportedly being actively tested north of the Polar circle. This model can be seen as the embodiment of Russia’s frequent boasts about its domestic military arms and munitions being superior to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) technology due to the former’s ability to, for instance, withstand extreme temperatures. At the same time, a naval version of this air-defense system, the Pantsir-ME (initially presented in 2015), will apparently be fully operational by the end of 2018. Designed for use on various types of vessels, the air-defense complex is currently being tested in the Black Sea. Russian officials have claimed that one Project 1241 corvette (NATO classification: Tarantul) was equipped with a Pantsir-ME system during the summer of 2017 (, December 27, 2017).

When Russia entered the Syrian conflict in 2015, it right away prioritized the S-400 Triumf (NATO classification: SA-21 Growler) anti-aircraft weapon system as the key defensive element of its Anti-Access, Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. Subsequent developments witnessed Russia’s changing strategic posture (see EDM, November 14, 2017): The S-400 now constitutes the first layer of an integrated A2/AD “bubble,” whereas the Pantsir is seen as the second layer, tasked with dealing with objects/targets operating at a relatively low altitude (the special emphasis on defending against UAVs is clear a by-product of the Syrian experience).

At the same time, given the doctrine guiding the Russian Armed Forces (which aside from repelling a potential attacker are also expected to promptly switch to a counter-attack), the seeming exclusively defensive nature of this S-400–Pantsir “tandem” might not reflect its genuine role on the battlefield. For instance, on January 26, units of the Baltic Sea Fleet held maneuvers in Kaliningrad oblast that witnessed the integrated use of S-400, Pantsir and Electronic Warfare (EW) forces. The exercise specifically simulated counter-actions against targets on the territory of the oblast. According to the official representative of the Baltic Sea Fleet, Roman Martov, “During the exercises, the units conducted rapid marches in the area,” thus simulating a counter-attack (TASS, January 26, 2018). In effect, these drills in many respects simulated the types of challenges faced by the Russian side in Syria, which have often been downplayed by some Western observers.

Indeed, the idea of using the S-400 and Pantsir together in an integrated “tandem” is by no means a new one for Moscow. And taking into consideration the developing advanced characteristics of the Pantsir as well as the eventual expected integration of the S-500 Prometey (NATO classification: 55R6M Triumfator-M) into the Russian Armed Forces, all this can be expected to have a dramatic effect on Russian A2/AD capabilities, thus eradicating current deficiencies in air-defense observed during the Syrian campaign (see EDM, April 11, 2017). At this juncture, the Syrian experience has played a decisive role for Moscow in terms of accumulating knowledge about its own deficiencies. The newly modified Pantsir could be seen as the main missing element that could narrow the existing gap in Russia’s A2/AD strategy.