Russian air defense systems outmatched by Turkish drones in Syria and Libya

Recent conflicts in northwestern Syria and western Libya have showcased the increasing importance of Turkey’s drones and Russian missile defense systems. This has significant ramifications for the wider Middle East because it reveals the unprecedented strategic role drones and air defense are playing across the region.

Both Russia and Turkey have been seeking new markets for their air defense and drone systems respectively. The outcome of these conflicts are given extra weight because they tie in with other countries, such as Iran, the UAE, Egypt, France, the U.S. and Israel.

The current conflicts in Syria and Libya illustrate a rapid change in the balance of power for drones and air defenses. Since June 2019, this field has entered a new era after an Iran shot down a U.S. Global Hawk near the Gulf of Oman, coupled with the Iranian drone and cruise missile swarm attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq facility in September. Iran evaded Western-supplied air defense that the Saudis had in place. 

While the US and Israel have been dominant in the use of drones for the last four decades, these new incidents represented a shift in the use of drones and their strategic impact.

Iran, for instance, is supplying drones to the Houthis in Yemen and the US has interdicted drone component shipments.  

In February and March, conflict in Idlib between the Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian regime and Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces bubbled over into a brief clash between Turkish armed forces and Syrian regime elements. Turkish drones, known as Bayraktar TB-2 and Anka-S, played a key role in destroying Syrian units, including Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems. This operation using drones to fly in a Syrian airspace controlled partly by Russia has been characterized as a “drone blitz” or “new way of war.”

Russia-supplied air defense in Syria had once downed a Turkish F-4 in 2012. Not wanting to risk aircraft, Turkey sent in drones in 2020. Turkey lost drones in Idlib, estimates say around six to eight were destroyed in February 2020, or approximately ten percent of its drone fleet. However, over the short offensive from February 28 to March 4, Turkey claimed to have outwitted and destroyed several of Russia’s Pantsir and BUK air defense systems, which were being used by Syrian regime forces.

Turkish defense industry expert Bahri Mert Demirel said that the “Pantsir could not perform its duty in Syria because Turkey carried out serious electronic warfare and deployed radar electronic attack systems including KORAL to intercept and deceive radar systems in Syria.”

In all, Turkey’s Defense Ministry claimed eight air defense systems had been destroyed, essentially blinding and incapacitating the Syrians to the drone threat and forcing a ceasefire. For Russia, which maintains a base in Khmeimim near Idlib, the setback for its Syrian ally was important. Russia has supplied S-300s to Syria after an Israeli airstrike in the fall of 2018. Like Turkey, Israel has destroyed the Russian Pantsir in Idlib and it’s unclear how well Russian radars have performed for the Syrian regime trying to halt thousands of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets.

A second round of Turkish drones versus Russian air defense played out in Libya in the first weeks of May, culminating in the capture of the Watiya airbase by Government of the National Accord forces on May 17. Turkish media celebrated the defeat of the Russian system which is being used by the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar, and which may have been supplied by the UAE. Haftar, whose forces are based in eastern Libya, are backed by Russia, Egypt and the UAE with support from France and others in the Middle East.

Libya is home to a complex conflict that has grown in importance as Turkey signed a deal with Tripoli in November for energy rights in the Mediterranean – which now links Turkey’s role in Libya to wider energy conflicts with Greece and regional skirmishes such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia Gulf crisis.

Turkey’s drones, with their relatively slow speed, short range and MAM laser-guided smart munitions, should have been no match for the Pantsir system, especially since operators in Libya had time to analyze what went wrong in Syria. The Pantsir has a gun and missile system and two radars with optics to aid its weapons. Its missiles had a longer range than the MAM missiles on the drones. Instead the Pantsirs, at least nine of them, were hunted down in May in Libya, destroyed in hangars with their radars not operating, or struck in the back while unable to see the incoming threat due to jamming or operator inexperience.

Russia’s response to setbacks in Syria and Libya has been to send warplanes to both countries. MiG-29s for the Syrians and Libyan LNA forces. U.S. AFRICOM has raised concerns about the Russian supply of warplanes.

The outcome of the recent battles in Syria and Libya have several ramifications. First, they illustrate how drones and air defense systems are increasingly used by non-western powers and proxy forces, part of a larger global change where Chinese and other UAV manufacturers are making inroads. Second, Russia may have suffered a setback in marketing its air defense systems if it can’t improve the Pantsir’s track record. Third, drones have been revealed as a key arm for militaries to use in coordination with ground forces or even proxy forces to provide a kind of instant, relatively inexpensive, and expendable air force. Iran, Israel and others are closely watching the outcome of these battles.

The number of drones being downed in conflict has increased in the last years. According to our estimate, the total reported downings increased from 31 in 2016 to 123 reportedly shot down in 2019, with 67 already shot down in 2020. While the ability to confirm all reports from Idlib or Libya is difficult, it is beyond clear that drones are playing a more strategic and tactical role. They are also proliferating in conflicts from Africa to Asia, with China, Russia, Iran and Turkey drawing lessons from the clashes.

Seth J. Frantzman is Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and author of ‘After ISIS: The US, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.’ A contributor to Defense News and The Jerusalem Post, he is conducting research for a forthcoming book called ‘Drone Wars.’

Reporting from Israel, Seth J. Frantzman is an adjunct fellow at FDD and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal. He is the acting news editor and senior Middle East correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post. 

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