In 2020, the United States of America bagged a crucial piece of Russian military hardware from Libya; successfully extracting a Pantsir S1 Air Defence system, a popular platform favoured by the Russians among other nations, back to the US for evaluation. The Pantsir recovery marked a significant intelligence victory for the global superpower. However, this was by no means the first time a weapon system was smuggled by a foreign entity and brought back to their home country, but a recurring theme in warfare.
The Pantsir is an uber-sophisticated air defence system on paper but there have been reservations on its operational performance. Regardless of the system's efficacy, the surreptitious acquisition has potentially allowed the US to garner crucial technological know-how.
Recover, Learn & Exploit…
"Covert acquisitions enable the saboteur to find out how the acquired system works, its technical limitations and lapses, and maybe further exploited, expanded upon, or give insights to build effective countermeasures."
Acquiring an adversary’s military platform provides obvious advantages; it can be replicated and leveraged for a nation's own military applications. Furthermore, it may drastically reduce the time, resources, and financial investments dedicated to the Research and Development (R&D) of a similar system.
As aforementioned, getting hands-on another nation’s military hardware to gain the technical edge or at least symmetry is not a new phenomenon. A notable instance is the Soviet Union’s reverse engineering of the USAF B-29 bomber into the TU-4 early into the Cold War.
Billions of dollars are gambled into the R&D of state-of-the-art military tech, with no assurance in a program’s success. There are several instances of programs being scrubbed for failing to meet guidelines or set objectives. These lead to a colossal waste of the technological, intellectual, and financial investments made on the project. On the other hand, stealing of military tech is viewed by certain quarters as more economical and reaps more dividends.
Covert acquisitions enable the saboteur to find out how the acquired system works, its technical limitations and lapses, and maybe further exploited, expanded upon, or give insights to build effective countermeasures. A classic example of this was the United States Ship (USS) Halibut’s successful recovery of Soviet P-500 anti-ship missile fragments from the seas bed, which were reassembled, leading the US towards a critical technical limitation in the Soviet system.
The US found that the P-500 was purely radar-guided, not infrared as per their initial assessment. This crucial piece of information proved to be a treasure trove, empowering them to tailor-make countermeasures against the P-500, while learning more about the USSR’s manufacturing capabilities.
Insights on the way a system was designed, built, assembled, the materials used, etc paint a comprehensive picture of a nation's current military capabilities and potential armaments they may possess in their arsenal or could develop. It also helps give a glimpse into why they designed a system the way that they did. While simply reverse engineering another nation’s military hardware proves useful, gaining an in-depth understanding of why certain design choices were used may provide even more vital information. These insights may be leveraged to meet the country’s own applications.
"The CIA had covertly flown two Chinook helicopters for several hundreds of miles to covertly extract and smuggle a crashed Soviet-made Mil Mi-25 ‘Hind-D’ attack helicopter dead in the middle of the night."
The Pantsir S1 is only the latest air defence system the US got its hands on from Russia. America has a history of acquiring erstwhile Soviet Union and modern Russian air defence technology. The older S-75, S-125, S-200, OSA Short-range air defence systems are some to name a few. The US has even managed to procure some long-range air defence systems like the S-300. Going by publicly available information, America had been able to directly procure the S-300V from Russia, purchase the S-300P from Belarus, and allegedly procured an S-300 PMU1 through unknown means.
The collapse of the Soviet Union marking the end of the Cold War set the stage for a unipolar world, making the availability of military technology from previously inaccessible nations. The reunification of East and West Germany following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the independence of former Soviet nation-states, and the Warsaw pact countries acted as buffer areas, giving the US a significant strategic advantage.
America had placed a major emphasis on the procurement of Soviet aircraft during the Cold War, with several notable successes. The Cold War witnessed several soviet pilots who defected along with their aircraft with them to the US and its allied countries like Japan, West Germany, Turkey, and Israel, acting as hubs for the US to thoroughly inspect the enemy aircraft, and in cases extract them back to the states for R&D.
The US through its external intelligence agency, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conducted several covert operations through which they got their hands-on Soviet aircraft. Operation Mount Hope III between 10 Jun 1988 – 11 Jun 1988, is one such notable clandestine operation that was carried out by US intelligence at the end of the Chadian–Libyan conflict.
The CIA had covertly flown two Chinook helicopters for several hundreds of miles to covertly extract and smuggle a crashed Soviet-made Mil Mi-25 ‘Hind-D’ attack helicopter dead in the middle of the night. Despite operational delays because of major sandstorms, the operation was successful with the CIA having extracted the chopper right under Libya’s nose.
NTTR: America’s Testing Grounds
"America’s covert acquisitions find their way inside the secretive ‘Nevada Test and Training Range’. This comprises of the lesser-known Tonopah military base and Area 51."
A lot of America’s covert acquisitions find their way inside the secretive ‘Nevada Test and Training Range’ (NTTR). This comprises of the lesser-known Tonopah military base and Area 51. The Tonopah base is particularly intriguing as unlike ‘Area 51’ the establishment has historically been glanced over, and largely out of the public consciousness. During the cold war, Tonopah had housed Soviet Scud missiles. The Pantsir system, supposedly loaned from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was also reportedly housed there.
The Tonopah base had been the official home of the 4477th Test and Evaluation (TES) Squadron. This famed yet covert squadron was responsible for the testing and evaluation of procured soviet hardware. The 4477th flew Soviet fighter jets brought in by the US and had been known to test their capabilities, identify vulnerabilities and take part in mock dog fights with the United States Air Force (USAF) fighter jets to devise countermeasures to defeat them.
The 4477th was shut down with the end of the Cold War, however, it gave birth to Detachment 3 53rd Test and Evaluation Group, flying modern fighters like Mig-29s, SU-27s among other cutting-edge aircraft with the same purpose as its predecessor.
Another notable establishment inside the NTTR is the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range (TPECR), where the US reportedly tests and trains against foreign Surface to Air Missile Systems (SAM), acquired by the country. Some systems said to have been housed inside this facility are the S-125, S-200, and even an S-300. Individual radars and launchers are visible in satellite images posted online.
The Flip Side: Reverse Engineering US Military Systems
"The Russians have been known to have previously extracted Tomahawk variants used during Operation Desert Storm, the US Military operation in Iraq."
America is not the only nation-state adept at procuring another nation’s military technology. Russia claimed to have recovered an intact US Tomahawk cruise missile following a supposed failed missile strike in Syria. The Russians have been known to have previously extracted Tomahawk variants used during Operation Desert Storm, the US Military operation in Iraq.
The Tomahawk missiles used in Desert Storm did not have the same level of sophistication in their navigation system as compared to today’s Tomahawk variants, like the one said to have been recovered from Syria. Nonetheless, Russia’s recoveries of the older renditions proved valuable.
The missile variant used in Desert Storm relied heavily on imagery stored in the missile’s memory, cross-referenced with the terrain it was flying over to ensure that it stayed on course during its flight. The US Military faced a major technical challenge in Iraq as the country’s topographical profile consisted primarily of flat desert, with relatively few distinguishable features in its overall terrain to help the Tomahawk missiles navigation system figure out its location, going off course as a result and failing at times.
To mitigate these challenges the missiles were often flown over Iran as its mountainous terrain aided the missile's navigation system, however, despite this, some of them failed and were subsequently extracted and used by the Iranians; allegedly in the development of their Soumar Cruise missile. Failed US Tomahawks have been found in Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and the People's Republic of China (PRC) as well, with the latter, allegedly having used it to reverse engineer and design their CJ-10 missile.
Regardless of whether the recovered Tomahawk by Russia was from a failed air strike in Syria or America’s older conflicts in Iraq, Serbia, etc, Russia has explicitly stated it would use it to enhance their own missile inventory. Iran as aforementioned has also had a history of reverse engineering US military technology. For instance, the country is notorious for creating carbon copies of American Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and showing them off to the world.
"Failed US Tomahawks have been found in Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and the People's Republic of China (PRC) as well, with the latter, allegedly having used it to reverse engineer and design their CJ-10 missile."
Other instances such as the crash of an American Black Hawk helicopter fitted with stealth technology during the famous ‘Operation Neptune Spear’ inside a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on 2 May 2011 and the shooting down of a US F1-17 flying over Yugoslavia on 27 March 1999 gave these countries the means and opportunity to gain the technological know-how on the US’s critical stealth technology, possibly using it to further develop their own.
There have also been accounts of how the Soviet Union had been able to secure US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) aircrafts such as the F-86 Sabre during the Korean War. Similarly, during the ‘Taiwan Strait Crisis,’ an early US Sidewinder short-range air-to-air-missile failed to explode and got stuck in a Mig-17 which the Soviets were able to get their hands on and successfully reverse engineer it and rechristen it as their own K-13 missile, which gave the USSR a major boost in the development of infrared air-to-air missiles technology.
The examples cited do not even begin to scratch the surface of the volume of documented data on surreptitious acquisitions, let alone cases which have never reached the public sphere.
"There had been a lot of deliberation over the US selling or at least loaning F-35s to Taiwan, as there were concerns that critical technology could fall into the hands of the Chinese."
The potential risk of military technology falling into enemy hands is said to be a major consideration by nations looking to sell their military technology. For instance, there had been a lot of deliberation over the US selling or at least loaning F-35s to Taiwan, as there were concerns that critical technology could fall into the hands of the Chinese. Acquiring the adversary's weapon systems is simply invaluable. The news of the US getting a hold of the Russian Pantsir is just another instance in a long history of surreptitious acquisition, and most certainly not the last.