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Did The US ‘Smuggle’ A Russian Missile Defense System Out Of Libya By A C-17 Globemaster?

The US had used a covert operation to ‘smuggle’ a Russian Pantsir-S1 medium-range air defense system out of Libya in June last year, The Times reports. The revelation could further strain the Moscow-Washington ties. 

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The system was captured from forces aligned to the rogue General Khalifa Haftar and was taken away from the country amid fears that it might get into the hands of militant groups operating in the region.

According to the London-based The Times, a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III was used to transport the Pantsir-S1 from Zuwarah International Airport, Tripoli, to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The system would provide valuable intelligence about the Russian air defense system to the United States and its allies.

Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) had acquired the Pantsir-S1 systems from the UAE, which itself purchased a distinct version of the Pantsir based on German 8×8 MAN SX chassis instead of the Russian 8×8 KAMAZ 6560 ones. 

However, images have shown the Russian chassis-based systems are in service with LNA (or Russian PMCs) as well, making it difficult to deduce which variant has been smuggled out of the country by the United States.

The weapon systems, radars, and electronics are the same on both irrespective of the chassis. Each Pantsir-S1 has six ready-to-fire 57E-series command guided surface-to-air missiles and two 30mm cannons serving as anti-aircraft artillery. The system was intended to replace the soviet-era Tunguska air defense system. 

The system’s cannons can also be used against ground targets. It has an integrated radar, making it non-dependent on other assets for its capabilities, unlike many other systems that require a separate radar and network to be set up. 

It can operate within a battery in conjunction with other Pantsir-S1 systems deployed nearby using digital data link systems, covering a larger area.

The system’s missiles can reportedly engage hostile targets up to 20 kilometers, but the effective range could be much shorter given the system was designed for low-altitude point defense against subsonic cruise missiles, drones, helicopters, tactical aircraft (fighter jets, dedicated ground-attack jets, etc.), and even air-to-ground munitions.

It has been deployed in Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, which would be of particular interest to the US, which is also being involved in these conflicts. In Syria, the Israeli fighter jets (mainly of American-origin) have had many face-offs with the Russian aircraft and air-defense systems. There are reports of the deployment of the Russian S-400 at Latakia Air Base. 

All the Pantsir-S1 units in Libya are operated by Russian PMC Wagner, a private military organization, serving as “non-state actors” in the fight to sustain Moscow’s interests, according to reports. In addition, Wagner troops are believed to be flying MiG-29s and Su-24s that Russia sent to Libya in support of LNA last year.

Last year, a US MQ-9 Reaper drone was shot down by a Russian air defense system in Libya; the US Africa Command has confirmed this. According to The Times, a Pantsir-S1 manned by Russian mercenaries was behind the kill.

Nevertheless, it is not exactly known as to when and where this Pantsir was acquired. The Times’ report did mention that it was taken away from the GNA-aligned forces.

Writing for TheDrive, Joseph Trevithick says, based on online flight tracking data, observers have determined that a C-17A had carried the weapon. It first left Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina for Ramstein just days after the GNA captured Al Watiya in May 2020. 

He further says that aircraft subsequently made multiple trips to and from Libya in the first week of June before returning to Charleston on June 7, 2020.

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