By Samer Al–Atrush
When militias allied to the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli stormed Khalifa Haftar’s Al-Watiya air base in western Libya on 18 May 2020, they captured a valuable prize – a Russian-built Pantsir missile defence system.
The capture of the Pantsir battery offered access to key intelligence about Russia’s military technology. It also triggered a tussle between Turkey and the United States about which country would take custody of this high-value kit.
In Libya’s civil war, Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based government while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russian mercenaries are backing Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), which had launched an offensive against the national capital.
Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones had destroyed about a dozen Pantsir batteries used by Haftar’s forces. But until the militias overran Al-Watiya, about 125km south-west of Tripoli, the pro-GNA forces had never captured one intact.
The Pantsir, delivered by the UAE to Haftar’s forces, was carted off to Zawiya, west of Tripoli, where it fell into the hands of the notorious militia commander Mohamed Bahroun. Known as ‘the Rat’, Bahroun is wanted by the government’s prosecutor and is suspected of links to Islamic State fighters and smugglers.
Ankara’s allies on the ground quickly claimed the Pantsir, and it was sent to Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, where Turkish troops seized control of it.
Over the next couple of weeks, an international struggle played out over the spoils. The United States had ordered an operation to extract the Pantsir, fearing the sophisticated missile system could fall into the hands of extremists.
Turkey, keen to study the Pantsir in detail, insisted it should take custody of it. Both sought to sway the Libyan government into siding with them.
Finally, they reached a deal. US forces would extract the Pantsir using one of their air force cargo planes then deliver it to Turkey, where both sides could jointly study the Russian system, officials with knowledge of the talks told The Africa Report.
The GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and interior minister Fathi Bashagha “felt like children in a divorce,” said an official, explaining how the government in Tripoli was dragged into this high-stakes international dispute.
They were relieved when the US and Turkey agreed on a compromise.
This deal underlined a relationship that’s been overshadowed by the dispute between Washington and Ankara over Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S400 missile defence systems.
Both countries remain North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies. In Libya, as well as in Syria, the US counted on Turkey’s military presence as a counterbalance against Moscow.
Turkey stepped up support for the Tripoli-based government several months after Russia’s Wagner Group sent mercenaries to the frontline in support of Haftar’s bid to seize the capital.
Within a few months, the Turkish-backed government forces pushed back Haftar’s troops, along with the Wagner fighters, effectively ending the war.
“I think the fact that the US transferred the Pantsir system to Turkey post-receipt under an agreement speaks to a partnership that is more strategic than it is solely tactical when it comes to supporting Turkey in developing unmanned aerial vehicles able to counter Russian defence systems,” says Emadeddin Badi, an authority on Libya and a senior analyst with the Global Initiative.
“There is clearly a covert expectation that Turkey will counterbalance Russia in Libya under a bilateral or multilateral framework – and a green light for this ‘balance’ to be buttressed with strategic military superiority as deterrence,” Badi adds. “Now whether Turkey lives up to those expectations is another story.”
In a final act in the Pantsir saga on 3 June 2020, US pilots flew a US C-17 Globemaster from the Africa Command’s base in Ramstein, Germany, to Tripoli, returning the following day.
A day later it flew back to Libya and from there on to Ankara with the Pantsir on board. US and Turkish technicians would have examined the system piece by piece.
Are Pantsirs useless now?
A Russian official downplayed the importance of US access to this technology. He said the captured version of the Pantsir was an export to the UAE, which had ordered dozens of the batteries and deployed them to support Haftar in the war.
The US would have had the opportunity to study them in the UAE, added the official. Unlike the Pantsirs used domestically, the export versions are stripped of classified components, including a ‘friend of foe database’ with the codes for Russia’s air force fleet.
Yet US officials would not have had the chance to inspect the system in the UAE as closely as they could with a captured battery. Shortly after Wagner mercenaries went to Libya’s frontlines in September 2019, a Pantsir missile downed a US surveillance Reaper drone over Libya. The US military said the battery was operated by Wagner technicians or Haftar’s LNA.
For Turkey, a captured Pantsir would help give its Bayraktar and Anka drones an even bigger edge over the Pantsir systems.
Turkey had destroyed Pantsirs in proxy conflicts with Russia in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan. In Libya and Syria, the Turkish drones targeted the Pantsirs as they were on the move or after they had spent their missiles, while also using suicide drones against the batteries.
Western officials acknowledge the Pantsir system is sophisticated. But its effectiveness depends hugely on the skill of its operators.
Studying the Pantsir and learning its secrets, however, could render them entirely useless – not just against Turkey’s drones but against other types of NATO technology as well.