Footage released on Ethiopian national television has shown that the country is deploying Russian manufactured Pantsir S1 air defence combat vehicles, as part of a broader military modernisation program. The short range air defence system is highly mobile, and is also capable of engaging ground targets such as infantry and light armoured vehicles – deploying a combination of autocannons and missiles. The weapons platform entered service in the Russian armed forces in 2012, and represents by far the most of Ethiopia’s ground based air defence assets – with the country’s armed forces otherwise relying on modernised Vietnam War era assets. These include the S-75 long range surface to air missile system, in service since 1957, and the complementary short ranged S-125 which entered service in 1961 – the former which has been uniquely modified by Ethiopian forces to deploy from mobile launch vehicles.
Whether Ethiopia’s Pantsir air defence combat vehicles will be supplemented by a complementary longer ranged platform remains to be seen. While a platform such as the S-400, or even the S-300PMU-2, likely remains above the country’s current defence budget – particularly given the lack of an imminent threat – acquisition of a powerful but shorter ranged system such as the BuK-M2 or even the BuK-M3 remains possible. With Ethiopia having frequently been threatened by neighbouring Egypt with airstrikes on its dam infrastructure, the Pantsir is likely to be deployed to defend these positions should its armed forces perceive this threat to be restored – making such a strike far more difficult for a potential aggressor. According to a statement by the Russian Defence Ministry in mid 2018, the Pantsir air defence systems had a 100% efficiency in the Syrian theatre – and were responsible for seriously blunting the effects of Western missiles strikes against the country. Against enemy aircraft equipped with standoff munitions, the Pantsir is most likely to be used to intercept enemy attacks rather than to engage enemy aircraft directly – as these aircraft will in most cases deploy missiles for attack from beyond its range as repeatedly demonstrated in the Syrian theatre against Israeli and Western attacks.
Until the acquisition of the Pantsir, the defence of Ethiopian airspace relied overwhelmingly on the country’s sizeable Air Force – which deploys the second largest fleet of high end heavy air superiority fighters in Africa other than Algeria. This includes a fleet of 18 Su-27 Flankers armed with R-27 air to air missiles, and a further 18 MiG-23 swept wing fighters with the same armament. The Su-27 is currently heavier than anything in the Egyptian fleet, and was key to providing an advantage over neighbouring Eritrea’s MiG-29 fleet during their two year conflict in the 1990s. Another means for Ethiopia to seriously enhance its air defences would be to modernise its Su-27 fleet – possibly contracting Russian assistance to upgrade the aircraft to the Su-27SM2 standard. This would provide them with ‘4+ generation’ capabilities – including state of the art avionics and engines and an Irbis-E radar and integration of high end technologies from the Russian Su-35. Acquisition of more advanced air to air missiles such as the R-27ER and the latest R-77 variants would also go a long way in this regard, providing the aircraft with a far longer engagement range than anything currently in the Egyptian fleet or those of any neighbouring countries.
Source: Military Watch Magazine