Sunday 19 December 2021

Overlooked And Underfunded: Armenia’s S-125 SAM Upgrade

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
In the 2010s, Armenia embarked on an expansive modernisation programme of its air defences to keep up with Azerbaijan's expanding drone arsenal and to address the obsolescence of its existing surface-to-air missile (SAM) and radar systems. Although acquisitions like the Tor-M2KM and Buk-M1-2, and Russian jamming equipment such as the Repellent-1 and Avtobaza-M would attract the most attention, overhauls and upgrades performed to its older systems occurred as well. This included SAM systems like the 2K11 Krug, 2K12 Kub and the S-125, all of which dated from the 1960s.

Faced with a chronic lack of funding and a government that saw more merit in the acquisition of up to twelve Su-30SM multi-role combat aircraft from Russia to act as a deterrent to Azerbaijan, the scope of these upgrades would eventually be limited to the replacement of worn-out modules, digitalization of some analogue components and other incremental changes. [1] Whilst altogether somewhat increasing their combat effectiveness, these upgrades ultimately proved entirely insufficient to give aging systems like the 2K11 Krug, 2K12 Kub and the S-125 a fighting chance during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.
In the early 2010s Armenia still maintained some five active S-125 SAM sites. At that time, the S-125 was still one of the more capable systems in Armenian inventory, with the acquisition of Buk-M1-2s and Tor-M2KMs still years away. Before 2015, the Armenian OJSC Charentsavan Machine-Tool Plant launched a modest upgrade project by installing a S-125 quadruple launcher on a trailer. [2] Although this modification decreased the number of missiles that could be carried from four to two, installing the launcher on a trailer greatly increases the mobility of the SAM system.

This in turn allows for much shorter relocation times, enabling the S-125 to become a semi-mobile system rather than a static SAM site. The associated SNR-125 'Low Blow' fire-control radar would likely have been installed on a towed trailer as well. Both components are normally placed on modified AA gun chassis, which however take a long time to set up. Armenia also sought to improve on the mobility of the missile transport vehicles, replacing their aging ZiL-131 trucks with more modern KamAZ trucks. While arguably a very economical upgrade that allowed the Armenian military to more flexibly deploy its S-125 SAM systems, a conversion of more launchers ultimately failed to take place.

A KamAZ transport vehicle with two 5V27D missiles on parade in Yerevan, September 2016.

In 2020, four Armenian S-125 sites still remained active. These were placed around Yerevan, Martuni and Vardenis in Armenia and Stepanakert in Nagorno-Karabakh. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, only one Armenian S-125 SAM site was located close enough to the fighting to theoretically take part in it. This site was located next to Stepanakert airport, and had only been established here in late 2019. Consisting of one SNR-125 'Low Blow' fire-control radar and two launchers, the operational career of these systems ended abruptly on the 17th of October 2020 when an IAI Harop struck the SNR-125, rendering the site useless as there now was no radar to guide the missiles. [3] 
It appears that no missiles had been fired by the site prior to its destruction, likely because its radar was unable to track the small loitering munitions over Stepanakert. [4] In turn, Azerbaijan appears to have placed little priority towards the site's destruction, only destroying it some three weeks after the Nagorno-Karabakh War commenced. Azerbaijan itself still has an estimated ten S-125 sites operational, most of which are meanwhile believed to have been upgraded to S-125TM 'Pechora-2TM' standard by Belarus. [5] Eight of these sites were installed in a ring around Nagorno-Karabakh, and will likely all be relocated to Karabakh or to other parts of Azerbaijan now the war has ended.

The SNR-125 radar located near Stepanakert airport seconds before being hit by an IAI Harop loitering munition.

Although Armenia's attempt to mobilize its S-125s remained stranded at the prototype stage, the Belarusian company Alevkurp would succesfully complete the design of such a system. Designated as the S-125–2BM (also known as the PF 50 Alebarda), this upgrade also sought to drastically improve on the S-125's parameters to enable it to better target low-flying aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. [6] Another upgrade that sought to address the mobility of the S-125 is the Russian Pechora-2M, which found commercial success with the militaries of Venezuela, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, and Myanmar. Other countries that have sought to improve the mobility of their S-125s include North Korea, Cuba and Poland. In case of the latter two, the S-125 launchers are actually installed on a T-55 tank chassis. [7] [8]

Turkmen S-125-2BM 'PF 50 Alebarda' SAM systems. Unlike Armenia's upgrade this system can actually carry four missiles.

Armenia is currently faced with the dilemma of whether to continue to operate large portions of its aging equipment knowing they are unlikely to play a role in any future conflict with Azerbaijan, or retiring these. While the decommissioning of systems like the S-125 would result in a significant decrease in combat capabilities on paper, it can be argued that it would ultimately matter little to Armenia's actual war fighting capabilities. Whether this prospect ultimately kills off Armenia's plan to install its S-125 launchers onto trailers for increased mobility is unknown, but it is certain not to have helped.

[1] Вклад ВПК Армении в развитие ПВО и военной авиации
[2] ОАО «Чаренцаванский станкостроительный завод»
[3] Azerbaijan`s Defense Ministry: Armenia`s S-125 anti-aircraft missile system disabled
[5] The current state of the air defense system of Azerbaijan   
[8] Polish S-125 M Surface-to-Air Missile Shoots Down Drone During Exercise

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