How the US is falling behind Russia in anti-air defense tech

Just before the end of January 2018, 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 in January 2017 saw a swarm of drones attack a Russian air base in Syria, reportedly damaging seven jets.

russian s-400 syria

Russian S-400 long-range air defense missile systems are deployed at Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

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.

Also read: Why Russia’s new missile ships aren’t really all that powerful

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.

S-400 missile system. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Vitaly Kuzmin.

S-400 missile system. (Photo by Vitaly Kuzmin)

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.

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.

U.S. Army Capt. Richard Tran, an air defense officer, and an observer coach trainer with the Warhog Team, Joint Multinational Readiness Center, trains with an FIM-92 Stinger Man-Portable, Air Defense Missile System at the Hohenfels Training Area, Hohenfels, Germany, Jan. 10, 2018. The training was in preperation of future rotational exercises where the OCT's will start evaluating two-man Stinger Teams for the first time in approximately 15 years. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. David Overson)

U.S. Army Capt. Richard Tran, trains with an FIM-92 Stinger at the Hohenfels Training Area, Hohenfels, Germany, Jan. 10, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. David Overson)

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.

Related: Extremists and cheap drones are changing asymmetrical warfare

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.

More: The treaty-busting missile the Russians use to threaten NATO

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.