The Pantsyr (known to NATO as the SA-22 "Greyhound") is an upgraded version of a late Soviet system, also known as the Tunguska, that was exported to India, Peru, Ukraine and Germany. The latest improvements reportedly were funded by the United Arab Emirates, which took delivery of the first system in 2004.
Essentially a point-defense system, each Pantsyr-S1 platform carries twelve surface-to-air missiles with ranges between roughly seven and 13 miles as well as twin 30mm cannons (depending on the variant). The system reportedly is offered for export mounted on either a truck or an armored chassis, or as a fixed installation, and some versions have more robust radar and targeting capabilities than others. The missiles supposedly also have a secondary anti-armor capability.
Given the unconfirmed nature of the sale, it is difficult to determine just which capabilities Moscow has decided to share with Damascus. But whatever the case, the fundamental reality of Syria's air defense capability remains unchanged: Damascus' strategic systems are rooted in Soviet-era technology that is four decades old - or more. The upgrade will not change the strategic balance between Syria and its neighbors.
In 2007, Russia's then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov rebutted Israeli claims that the Pantsyr-S1 was already being delivered to Syria, insisting that it would only take place in 2008. Ivanov, now first deputy prime minister, reiterated this timing on March 21, when Tula-based Instrument Making Design Bureau (KPB) CEO Alexander Rybas announced that the Syrian delegation was scheduled to arrive April 15. (Notably, the announcement happened while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was touring the MiddleEast, including a stopover in Damascus.)
Syrian concern over its air defenses is well-founded. Russian technicians reportedly have helped implement some upgrades following the Syrian air-defense network's near-total failure to react to an Israeli airstrike in eastern Syria on Sept. 6, 2007. At the moment, the Levant is filled with rumors of war, as it appears that Israel may be maneuvering for another battle with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Much is unclear, but Syria is likely to be very much caught in the crossfire of the potential conflict.
However, the Syrian air-defense system's weaknesses are partially rooted in the hardware (guidance controls, radars, and the like). Some improvements can indeed be made via better networking of the systems, but a far more comprehensive and strategic upgrade would be necessary to alter the permeability of Syrian airspace meaningfully. Given that Syria's primary concern is the technologically sophisticated Israeli air force, only the acquisition of significant numbers of modern strategic air defense systems such as the S-300 could begin to shift the dynamic. That would be an expensive proposition - something Damascus cannot afford and Russia is not interested in financing.
As such, these Pantsyrs - should they be delivered - will offer some increased defensive capability for high-value targets in Syria, but on the whole will not be able to deny Syrian airspace to outsiders. By themselves, they are not something the Israeli air force, for example, cannot compensate for. If Damascus is lucky, the systems might be able to increase the cost of Israeli airstrikes in Syria by bringing down an Israeli warplane or two - but to do that, the Pantsyrs will have to be operated by proficient, savvy crews. They will have to remain mobile and wait until Israeli planes are within their range before turning on their radar - otherwise, Israel's anti-radiation Shrike missiles can be launched from well outside the Pantsyrs' range.
While Moscow's patronage is absolutely essential for any improvement of Syria's air defense capability, Russia would have to give a great deal more to alter the picture meaningfully. Syrian air defense crews will have to do more work of their own - work not necessarily characteristic of the sedentary Syrian regular forces - to become proficient with a new system. And while Israel might have to adjust the strike package for a particular high-value target, it still retains the capability to operate in Syrian airspace with impunity.