Forces loyal to Libya's UN-recognized Government of National Accord parade a Russian Pantsir air defense system truck in Tripoli on May 20, 2020, after its capture at al-Watiya airbase. Photo: AFP

Russia has got a black eye in Libya as at least three of its vaunted Pantsir S-1 (SA-22 Greyhound) air defense systems were taken out by Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 armed drones.

The drones, ostensibly in the hands of the official Libyan government forces (Government of National Accord or GNA), are actually operated by Turkish personnel. 

Turkey has been illegally shipping arms into Libya and has deployed 1,500 soldiers and thousands of non-uniformed personnel to help the Libyan government fend off attacks by the so-called Libyan National Army headed by self-declared Field Marshal Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. 

Turkey has had a big impact in recent days, forcing Haftar to abandon his attempt to take Tripoli and putting its forces on the run. Haftar has lost his key airbase at al-Watiya.

Haftar’s forces are supported by Egypt, the UAE and Russia. Reportedly in light of significant gains by the GNA and the pullback of Haftar’s forces from Tripoli, Russia has intervened with jet fighters to prevent his total defeat at the hands of Turkish-backed Libyan government forces. 

The aircraft were sent from Khmeimim Air Base in Syria and allegedly include SU-24’s and MIG-29’s.  The Su-24, an old aircraft, is basically a ground attack platform whereas the MIG-29 was sent for air superiority.  

In a response, Turkey has conducted a large scale air exercise in the Mediterranean as a warning to the Russians. The exercise included at least 10 F-16 fighter planes, an Atlas 400M European-made transport aircraft, an AWACS plane (Boeing 737 AEW&C E-7 Wedgetail) and a C-130 transport aircraft.

Turkey has also deployed G-class frigates, the F496 TCG Gökova, F497 TCG Göksu, F490 TCG Gaziantep, F495 TCG Gediz (plus the Akar-class A595 TCG Yarbay Kudret Güngör replenishment oiler).  These are modernized US FFG-7 frigates featuring better weapons and a digitized command and control system.  Turkey is using them to escort ships loaded with clandestine weapons deliveries to the Libyan government that are banned by the United Nations. 

One arms smuggling ship was stopped by the French Navy, prompting the Turks to use armed escorts.  The frigates are also being used against Haftar’s forces.  

The Turks fired off an old model SM-3 missile, a large US air defense missile that is unsuited for a counter-drone role.  The SM-3 didn’t hit anything and landed in a Libyan farm field.

Haftar forces also have some armed Chinese drones supplied by the UAE.  On May 17, one of Haftar’s drones, a Wing Loon armed UAV (also known as the Chengdu Pterodactyl I)  was shot down.

The most important success has been Turkey’s use of its Bayraktar TB-2 armed drone.  It has put out of action at least 3 Pantsir air defense systems which were sent to Haftar by the UAE who previously bought them from Russia. The difference between the UAE version and the Russian version is the transport vehicle.

The UAE is midway in the process of buying some 50 systems, half of them with rubber tires and the other half partially tracked.  The UAE Pantsir vehicles are based on the German  MAN SX 45 8′ x 8′ truck chassis rather than the Russian Ural-5323. 

On March 3, the Bayraktar knocked out a Pantsir system in Idlib province belonging to the Syrian Army, and a second Pantsir was destroyed in Syria along with various radars, also in Idlib province, on March 11.

The Bayraktar inventor, Selçuk Bayraktar, is a celebrity in Turkey because of the drone’s successes in Syria and Libya.  

The most important Bayraktar strike was on May 18 when the drone attacked the al-Watiya airbase to the east of Tripoli and near the Tunisian border.  Al-Watiya was a major strategic asset for Haftar.  After the drone strike, Libyan government forces moved in and occupied the base, which had been one of Haftar’s most important military assets. 

The drones knocked out at least three “bomb proof” cement hangers that stored aircraft and protected two Pantsir systems.  One of the Pantsirs was crushed when the entire structure collapsed on it; the second one, parked inside a “bomb proof” shelter was burned by the blast but not destroyed.  It was later taken by government forces, put onto a flat bed truck, and paraded around Tripoli.  There is speculation the Pantsir is now on its way to Turkey.

The Pantsir is regarded as a modern system and the Turks will now be able to exploit it and work up means of jamming its radar.

It isn’t clear why the Pantsirs were hiding in shelters and not being used to defend the airbase. Quite possibly Haftar did not have operators for them.

At least two of the Pantsirs destroyed, at least one in Syria and the other in Libya (not counting the two at al-Watiya), were hit by Turkish drones and never fired back.  At the same time, Pantsirs operated by the Russians at the Khmeimim Air Base are credited (by the Russians) with shooting down at least seven armed drones and a number of missiles fired by the US and French forces.  (The Russian claims are strongly disputed by the US and France.)  It is very likely Syrian Army and Libyan GNA Pantsir operators are poorly trained or the system has flaws, or both.

The Pantsir S1 was first deployed with Russia’s armed forces in 2012.  It combines air defense missiles and rapid fire cannons into a single road transportable package.  

The Bayraktar TB-2 is a medium endurance armed drone powered by an Austrian Rotax four cylinder 100 horsepower engine.  It has been used against hard targets including tanks, armored personnel vehicles, bunkers and hangers and sometimes against civilians.

The Turks have used it to kill what they say are members of the PKK, the Kurdish militant political organization Turkey considers terrorists. Five PKK leaders were killed by a Bayraktar drone in November, 2019, in Iraq. The Bayraktar is manufactured in Turkey by Baykar Defense in Istanbul.  The system is operated by Turkey, by Qatar and by Ukraine.  The drone carries a missile called the MAM-L.  It is 160mm in diameter and weighs 22kg. It is manufactured in Turkey by Rokestan.