Ukraine wants extra air protection weapons to counter Russian drone strikes

Ukrainian firefighters work on a destroyed building after a drone strike in Kyiv October 17, 2022.

Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

Ukraine is at risk of running out of air defense weapons and desperately needs help from the West to defend itself, analysts at the Royal United Services Institute said on Monday.

Russia has bombarded the country in recent weeks with a barrage of cheap Iranian-supplied drones, destroying the country’s energy infrastructure.

“The West must not avoid complacency about the urgent need to strengthen Ukraine’s air defense capabilities,” said defense and security think tank RUSI.

Moscow and Tehran have denied there is a deal for Iran to supply arms to Russia, a country with limited supply options due to international sanctions. However, the Iranian government first acknowledged on Saturday that it had sent a number of drones to Russia, but insisted it did so before Russia invaded Ukraine.

US special envoy to Iran Robert Malley denied that claim, saying Tehran shipped drones to Russia over the summer.

RUSI analysts Justin Bronk, Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds released their new report on Ukraine’s air defenses as Russia increasingly relies on Iranian Shahed-136 drones to disable Ukraine’s energy grids.

Local residents look at parts of an unmanned aerial vehicle, which Ukrainian authorities believe to be an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, after a Russian drone strike amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine October 17, 2022 in Kyiv.

Vladyslaw Musiyenko Reuters

“If Ukrainian SAMs [surface-to-air missile systems] are not supplied with ammunition and are eventually supplemented and replaced over time by western equivalents, Russian Aerospace Forces [the VKS] regain the ability to pose a major threat,” the analysts said.

On Sunday evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Iranian regime is helping Russia to prolong the war, saying, “If it weren’t for Iran’s arms supply to the aggressor, we would now be closer to peace.” He also warned that Russia could use Iranian missiles for a “possible repetition of mass attacks on our infrastructure”.

For its part, Ukraine continues to advocate for more air defense weapons to help it counter Russian drone and missile attacks. Analysts at RUSI agree that Ukraine urgently needs help to ensure “Kyiv can counter Moscow’s updated crackdown on Ukraine’s air war.”

Strategic air strikes

In the first months of the war against Ukraine, Russia’s attempts at strategic air strikes were limited to expensive cruise missiles and ballistic missiles and were of a much more limited scope, RUSI experts said, noting that “these could not cause strategically decisive damage during the first war.” seven months of invasion.”

In recent months, however, Russia has used hundreds of explosive-carrying drones supplied by Iran to attack Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, depriving hundreds of thousands of people of water and electricity as colder temperatures set in.

Essentially propeller-driven missiles, these drones are cheap to buy; Reports suggest they cost around $20,000 per unit compared to a cruise missile, which can cost several million dollars. While incapable of sophisticated maneuvers and containing smaller amounts of explosives than conventional missiles, they can be sent in “swarms” to hover over their target and are harder for radar systems to detect.

Pictures showed Kyiv police trying to shoot down drones last month during an attack on residential buildings and power plants.

A police officer shoots a flying drone after attacks in Kyiv on October 17, 2022.

Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

Defense analysts at RUSI said the deployment of Iranian drones had changed the character of Russia’s airstrike strategy, noting that the latest iteration is “a more targeted and sustained bombardment of Ukraine’s power grid, using hundreds of cheap Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 Ammunition to be mixed against substations with continued use of cruise missiles and ballistic missiles against larger targets.”

What Ukraine needs

In the short term, according to RUSI, Ukraine needs a large number of additional man-portable air defense systems, known as “MANPADS”, and radar-guided anti-aircraft guns like the Gepard.

These will “maintain and increase their ability to intercept the Shahed-136 and protect their remaining power infrastructure and repairs to damaged facilities,” the analysts added.

“In the medium term, Ukraine needs inexpensive ways to defend itself against the Shahed-136,” they said, also noting that the Ukrainian Air Force needs modern Western fighter jets and missiles to sustainably counter the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS). “Russian pilots were cautious throughout the war, so even a small number of Western fighters [jets] could have a great deterrent effect.”

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