The Second Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020 demonstrated that low-cost weapons such as small UAS and loitering munitions can neutralise or significantly degrade complex anti-air defences.
Putting the ethnic and geopolitical complications of the war to one side, two themes emerge, neither of which are new, but which represent the development of significant trends in modern warfare since 1945.
The first is that low-cost threats nearly always require a disproportionately high-cost response – low-tech offensive weapons need a high-tech defence. The second theme is that a professional military that does not apply systems warfare principles will suffer defeat.
Both these themes are encapsulated in the Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries’ approach to anti-air warfare.
LOW-COST & HIGH-TECH
The IAI Harpy drone is estimated to cost less than A$90,000, with the Harop loitering munition substantially less. While this is around twice the cost of a US-made GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), the Harpy has a range of around 100nm (200km) compared to the SDB’s 40nm range, and requires no launch aircraft or integration with airborne mission systems.
The premiere Russian short-range tactical air defence system is the Pantsir, a self-propelled surface-to-air gun and missile system. Each Pantsir vehicle costs around $A20 million and is usually employed in a battery of four to six firing units with additional support vehicles.
Each Pantsir firing unit carries 12 57E6 missiles so, assuming each target is allocated two missiles, for a six-unit battery this is a combined firing capacity of 36 targets.
Both Pantsir and the old Tor-M1 system were claimed to have worse-than-expected performance during recent conflicts. The Tor-M1 was considered ineffective on the Armenian side in 2020, and the Pantsir has suffered multiple losses in the current conflicts in Libya and Syria.
This is likely a result of the design requirements for short-range systems. Pantsir and Tor-M1 are designed to target small, highspeed targets such as anti-radiation missiles, glide bombs, and cruise missiles. The Pantsir has an S-band surveillance radar and combined X-band tracking and Ku-band missile guidance radar, while the Tor has a slightly higher frequency H-band acquisition radar and K-band tracking and guidance radar.
Because these systems are optimised for short-range (less than 20nm) engagement, the waveform is likely to be high PRF, low-duty factor, providing excellent resolution of targets with a high Doppler frequency – that is, rapidly closing targets. The trade-off comes from using a lower-cost command-guided missile that tracks to a predicted intercept point – bombs and missiles tend not to manoeuvre like a fighter aircraft – reducing the cost per shot but also reducing probability of hit against hard-to-detect targets, as slow-moving, low-Doppler targets will cause problems for radars that track in Doppler by masking in the clutter return.
Manufacturer KBP has admitted that “vulnerabilities” were found in the Pantsir-S system after the 2020 war in Libya, where nine systems were destroyed by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. These vulnerabilities likely relate to radar performance, but the addition of an even lower-cost missile able to dual-mount in a 57E6 canister suggests the volume of targets may also have been a factor.
SYSTEM vs SYSTEM
It is apparent Armenia believed the 2020 war would be fought in a linear way, the same as the First Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1988. The Armenian air defence system was constructed along the Soviet frontal lines approach that delineates defensive zones like a soccer pitch, and patchwork systems were added to address perceived gaps.
On the Azeri side, Israeli weapons systems were acquired between 2006 and 2019, and Turkish weapons in 2020. Israel – like Armenia – is a very small country, and Israeli weapons are optimised for network effects. Because of the lack of strategic ‘depth’, the IDF aims to engage all airborne threats at the same time, and Armenia paid for – and benefited from – a networked air defence military.
The Russian Army now has a similar approach to air defence based on the Battalion Task Group Structure. This uses multiple radars and SAMs to provide redundant and overlapping coverage.
For example, the Russians point to the success of the Pantsir in protecting Hmeimim airbase in Syria against a 13-ship drone swarm attack in 2018. This is more than just networking. It represents the understanding of an enemy’s offensive enemy systems and the development of equipment, tactics, and training that is designed to defeat those systems.
If we draw one lesson from the 2020 war, it is that buying military equipment doesn’t buy you a capability.
This story first appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of ADBR.