A Pantsir-S1 (foreground) and an S-400 (background) at a Russian Military base in Syria, December, 16, 2015.

The Pantsir-S1's newest missile that can destroy low flying drones. That, combined with the S-400 makes Russia's anti-aircraft systems better than the US'

  • Russia has a layered defense system protecting its bases in Syria that could prove difficult for American jets seeking to strike Syrian targets.
  • The system is composed of Pantsir-S1 mobile point-defence systems and S-400 missile systems. The Pantsir-S1 can take out low-flying vehicles and missiles while the S-400 can destroy high-flying targets.
  • Russia has also developed a small missile that is capable of taking out drones, limiting the effectiveness of a drone swarm or small armed UAVs.
  • Russia's air defenses are significantly more capable than American counterparts, especially when working together.

Talk of missile or air strikes against Syrian government forces as part of a retaliatory action for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma on Saturday has heated up in the last 24 hours.

But while Syrian air defenses are viewed as either not a threat or fair game for destruction, Russia's air defenses provide a much more difficult challenge, and not only because their destruction could lead to higher escalation. The air defenses could prove dangerous should the Russians decide to protect their Syrian ally.

Both the Pantsir and the S-400 were brought to Syria years ago by Russia. Notably, the Russian systems, working in tandem, could take on both low-flying and high-flying targets, and could be a problem for US forces attempting to strike Syria.

The Pantsir, known to NATO as the SA-22 Greyhound, entered service in the Russian military in 2012. Its primary role is that of point-defense, meaning it can defend from low-flying aerial targets within a certain area.

It is armed with two 2A38M 30 mm autocannons that have a maximum fire rate of 5,000 rounds per minute, and twelve AA missiles in twelve launch canisters. The system's weapons have an effective range of 10 to 20 kilometers.

Conversely, Russia's S-400 missile system is intended to deal with long-range targets. The system can be armed with four different missiles, the longest of which has a claimed range of 400 kilometers, while the most common missile has a range of 250 kilometers.

The two systems working in tandem provide a "layered defense," with the S-400 providing long-ranged protection against bombers, fighter jets, and ballistic missiles, and the Pantsir providing medium-ranged protection against cruise missiles, low-flying strike aircraft, and drones.

This explains why the systems have been deployed together in Syria, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has said "guaranteed the superiority of our Aerospace Forces in Syrian air space."

The Pantsir has also reportedly been seen in Ukraine's Donbas region, no doubt helping separatists defend against attacks from the Ukrainian Air Force.

Just before the end of January, Russia announced that its Pantsir-S1 mobile surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapons system would be equipped with a new type of missile to help it defend against smaller, low-flying targets.

Called the "gvozd" (the Russian word for "nail"), the missile is a small armament designed to take out small targets like drones. The Pantsir will reportedly be able to carry 4 gvozds in one canister, which means a fully armed system can have up to 48 missiles.

The issue of how to combat small and cheap drones that can carry small payloads or carry out kamikaze-style attacks continues to vex global militaries. The terrorist group ISIS has found them to be particularly useful, and last January saw a swarm of drones attack a Russian air base in Syria, reportedly damaging seven jets.

Russian air defense strategy


"It certainly makes the system more robust," Jeffrey Edmonds, a research scientist and expert on the Russian military and foreign policy at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Business Insider. "A layered defense is always better than a single defense layer."

Compared to Russia, the US does not have a point-defense system. Its air defense strategy relies primarily on the Patriot Missile System, the Avenger Air Defense System, and shoulder launched FIM-92 Stingers.

Edmonds says that the reason the Russians have been able to achieve these gains in aerial defense over the West is because the US has not had to face an adversary with advanced air capabilities, and because Russia's air defense strategy is made specifically to counter America's aerial superiority.

"For the Russians, in any conflict with the United States, the primary concern is going to be a massive aerospace attack," Edmonds said.

Operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere have shown that the Americans prefer to use what the Russians refer to as non-contact or new-model warfare — the use of effective airpower to destroy a large amount of targets and winning wars without invading a country.

"Their layered defenses are designed around that threat," Edmonds said.

As a result, Russia's air defenses are much more advanced than anything that the US and its allies currently field.

But that may not necessarily spell doom for the US and its allies, Edmonds said.

"Do we need the same kind of systems as the Russians? That's not necessarily the case because the threat they pose to us is different than the threat we pose to them," Edmonds said.

Edmonds pointed out that aircraft take a more active and aggressive role in American and NATO strategy than Russian strategy.

"The way we fight, our aircraft are out front. They prep the battlespace for follow-on units," he said. "It's almost the opposite for the Russians. Fighter aircraft will be fighting kind of behind the line, not venturing far out front."

Edmonds also noted that defense against an aerospace happens "across domains."

"That's counter-space, that's GPS jamming, that's missiles, dispersion, camouflage — there's a whole host of things that they practice, and capabilities they developed to counter a massive aerospace attack," Edmonds said.