ITAR-TASS, Russia’s National news agency, has released an interview with Valery Slugin, the chief air defence designer of the Shipunov KBP design bureau, a Tula-based subsidiary of Rostec’s High Precision Weapons Holding. Mr. Slugin, a KBP veteran, has been working on the PANTSIR system, a multi-meaning Russian word which could be translated as ‘armour, cuirass or shell’, for over 20 years, during which time, the system has gained the NATO nickname SA-22 GREYHOUND.
PANTSIR-S is a ground-based, self-propelled, surface-to-air missile/gun system to safeguard a variety of objects, including long-range air defence systems, military HQs and important civilian objects from all types of air based threats ranging from MLRS rockets and mortar shells up to cruise missiles, tactical ballistic and hypersonic weapons in addition to various types of drone. PANTSIR is armed with 12 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) in two containers positioned on both sides of the system turret which also employs two 30mm guns with a firing ratio up to 40 rounds per second.
The initial version has been dramatically modernised and is in service with the Russian Army as its main mobile and stationary close range air-defence complex, while the ODINTSOVO class missile corvette became the first Russian Navy combatant armed with PANTSIR-M, the navalised version, and it is planned to be installed aboard newly built and upgraded ships. The export version, called as PANTSIR-SE, was sold to a number of Russia’s friendly nations including Iraq, Syria, Algeria and Ethiopia, with Serbia becoming the latest customer earlier this year. According to Rosoboronexport CEO Aleksander Mikheev, PANTSIR has become one of the national best sellers on the world defence market. Talking about PANTSIR’s performance, Slugin confirmed that it has shot down about 100 drones in various locations throughout its service. “About 100, maybe more,” he said to the TASS correspondent, “that includes Syria and other regions.”
The latest attack disclosed by the Russian Foreign Ministry took place on 6th February this year, when an unidentified small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) was stopped by an airbase’s radar when it approached the Russian installation from the northeastern part of the Mediterranean Sea after dark. “The target was destroyed by the PANTSIR-S missiles at a distance from the airbase. No one was hurt. No material damage was done,” the ministry official said, adding that the airbase is operating routinely. The previous UAV attack on the Hmeimim base were staged by militants on 19th January when the air targets were downed at a safe distance from the base, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence spokesman. Mr Slugin also confirmed two PANTSIR divisions were deployed to Syria, a Russian one to protect military assets at Hmeimim and Tartus in addition to one operated by Syria.
Describing the terrorist’s tactics, Slugin said that they used to tie up to 10 bombs to each UAV, which made them perfectly visible on the radar screen but later, the militants cut the number to just two, so the UAV’s signature was dramatically reduced. To cope with a new threat: “we had to apply some effort to teach the systems how to take down such targets,” stated the designer. After certain improvements, to both the station and missiles, the system became capable of fighting mini-UAVs such as the Phantom quadcopter which has a maximum size about a foot in diameter. “The fight against small, low-speed, targets, is a real challenge for all radar stations and today, other air defence systems are incapable of fighting such drones,” explained Slugin. “We have adapted the radar for detecting and precisely tracking low-observable targets,” he said, adding that “certain improvements were made in the missile as well”.
Talking further about the experience in Syria, Mr Slugin claimed the system’s guns had been used to destroy civilian vehicles being used as suicide bombs. “The PANTSIR can defend itself against an infantry fighting vehicle or a “jihad mobile” and this is how its guns were used in Syria and this use proved to be effective,” he said. However, the missiles remain PANTSIR’s main weapon. “We try not to allow a target to approach the gunfire range. The closest range for the missile is about 1.5 km. [Only if] something comes closer, [do] we destroy these targets with the guns,” he explained. He also added that PANTSIR would be capable of hitting naval surface targets. “I believe that PANTSIR will be able to attack surface targets on the sea, too. If placed on the coast, preferably as high as possible, the system will be able to attack surface ships ten kilometers away”.
Slugin also commented on a video from 10th May 2018, later circulated on Twitter, which showed Syrian PANTSIR-S vehicles being destroyed by an Israeli guided missile, presumably a SPIKE model. He said that ahead of being hit, the PANTSIR-S had destroyed eight targets, expending its ammunition stock so the combat crew had left the vehicle and were waiting for the arrival of a Transport and Loader Vehicle (TLV) to replenish stores, which turned out to be the fatal mistake. “The combat vehicle should have been removed from the firing position as soon as the set of ammunition had been spent. If that had happened, everything would’ve been fine,” Slugin claimed as he gave some new details about which missiles are compatible with the system.
“There are two missiles that fight the entire range of targets. One is standard while the other has been developed recently and is hypersonic: it can reach a speed of Mach 5 and more,” he said, giving the system an unprecedented advantage. Speaking about the PANTSIR’s future development, he mentioned that a new small-size missile for attacking mini-UAVs could be created in three to four years from now as the Research and Development work is currently on the way.
According to the PANTSIR’s chief designer, the main task now is to increase the set of ammunition to be used against small targets and simultaneously reduce costs. At the moment, one PANTSIR vehicle employs a standard set of ammunition consisting of 12 missiles and 1,400 artillery shells, capable of destroying about 20 targets or more, but in a modern combat situation, this may not be enough. “We can supply the PANTSIR vehicle with four times more small missiles. This will increase combat effectiveness and the number of targets that can be destroyed,” he went on.”Currently, we destroy small targets … at a distance of 5-7 kilometres. Why should we stuff the missile with so much explosives and equip it with extremely powerful engines? It is economically feasible to make a small missile,” concluded Mr. Slugin. The designer believes that small missiles will be as long as the standard ones, but smaller in diameter so, instead of one standard missile, the launcher will be equipped with a cluster of four. “Half of the payload may be comprised of the small-sized missiles, allowing [us] to load 48 missiles just on one side of the vehicle,” he noted. The small missiles installation won’t require major alteration, “only the launcher’s electronic brain will have to be changed,” Mr. Slugin pointed out.
Another improvement to the PANTSIR system comes with the future TLV capability for firing missiles while receiving data on targets from the system’s main radar unit. “We plan to develop a new support vehicle that will carry an even bigger payload,” Slugin said, adding that the new, “TLV may become a transporting combat vehicle.” According to the designer, the TLV will receive target designation from the main unit, but will fire missiles on its own and carry twice as many missiles as the main unit: 24, compared to PANTSIR’s 12.
Keeping in mind the PANTSIR’s excellent performance today, as well as its post-upgrade capabilities, the system can remain Russia’s bestseller for at least another decade as, according to the recent statement by Dmitry Shugaev, of the Russian Federal Service on military technical cooperation, “13 countries from [the] Middle East, South East Asia, Latin America and Africa are actively negotiating for it”.