A Pantsir-S1 short range air defense system abandoned by its operators in Libya was covertly transported to Rammstein Air Force Base in Germany by the United States.
According to The Times, the secretive mission was carried out in June 2020, due to concerns that the Pantsir-S1, provided for the Libyan National Army by the United Arab Emirates, could fall into the hands of militias or arms smugglers, following its abandonment by LNA militias during the fall of al-Watiya Airbase. The mission was carried out in June, after the Pantsir had been seized by Mohamed Bahroun, a notorious militia commander also known as ‘the Rat’, following its transportation to the town of Zawiya.
However, forces loyal to interior minister Fathi Bashagha forced Bahroun’s militia to hand over the Pantsir, and then transported it to a base hosting Turkish forces. It was then delivered to Zuwara airport, where a US team had arrived aboard a C-17 Globemaster III. With the precious cargo secured, the C-17 then departed for Rammstein, where the trail went cold.
The UAE-supplied Pantsirs are alleged to have been operated by Wagner private contractors during the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli, with one such Wagner-operated Pantsir accused of downing an American MQ-9 Reaper flying over Tripoli. According to The Times, LNA leader Khalifa Haftar denied any knowledge of the Reaper’s wreckage when asked for its return, driving the US to seek to “settle the score”.
An anonymous Russian official contacted by The Times says that Russia is aware of the US extraction of the Pantsir, but it would be of limited intelligence value due to the US already having access to the system during joint exercises with the UAE. Additionally, export Pantsirs allegedly do not have access to the Russian database of identification friend or foe transponder codes used by its aircraft.
The Russian bravado is undermined by the fact that US intelligence now has the ability to completely dismantle for examination one such Pantsir, without the need to ask for permission beforehand or forgiveness afterwards. Additionally, at least one Arabic language manual for the Pantsir was recovered by GNA forces from al-Watiya, something that would be of just as much intelligence value. Previous claims from pro-Russian sources “explaining” the Emirati Pantsirs’ lacklustre performance claimed that the export Pantsirs were solely guided using electro-optical sensors due to lacking a radar, a blatantly implausible argument as released drone targeting footage shows their search radar in operation when hit.
Furthermore, US technical analysis could help develop a response to newer Pantsir variants like the S1M or SM. While KBP Tula, manufacturer of the Pantsir, claims that the newer models are significantly more effective due to incorporating lessons learned from similar poor showings in Syria, they ultimately reuse the base Pantsir system design, and possibly retain the same exploitable weaknesses.
The timing of The Times’ scoop is also rather interesting, coming on the same day as the announcement that the Biden administration would be reviewing the sale of F-35s to the UAE. Some opponents of the deal had pointed to the UAE support of the LNA as a reason for opposing the deal, with none other than the Defense Intelligence Agency stating in a report that the UAE “may” have been funding Wagner’s operations in Libya.