How the West Can Help Thwart Russia's Drone Assault

Western backers could help Ukraine thwart possible "swarm" attacks by Iranian-made drones operated by Russia by focusing on certain key strategies, Newsweek has been told.

Iranian-made Shahed-131 and -136 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can carry warheads that shatter or explode when they reach their target and have become a familiar sight across Ukraine, known for the low buzzing sound they make.

Also known as "kamikaze" or "suicide" drones, the smaller Shahed-131 has a maximum range of around 550 miles, but the larger 136 can travel around 1,200 miles.

On Monday, Ukrainian news outlet Ukrinform quoted Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of the Main Intelligence Directorate within Ukraine's defense ministry, as saying Russia was expecting a new batch of the drones.

Moscow's stocks of UAVs "will need to be replenished," Skibitsky said.

Shahed Drone Over Ukraine
A drone approaches for an attack in Kyiv on October 17, 2022. Russia could use "swarm" tactics to overwhelm Ukraine's defenses, a Ukrainian official has suggested. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Swarm Tactics

Skibitsky said Russian forces have "used approximately 660 Shahed drones" to date, but will be expecting to have up to 1,750 at their disposal. He then suggested that Russia could mount large "swarm" attacks using the drones in a bid to overwhelm Kyiv's defense systems.

"Swarming is a very sophisticated method of attacking a specific target," Uzi Rubin, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told Newsweek.

Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute, said "swarm" tactics have previously been seen in Saudi Arabia and Yemen using Iranian-made drones. But these were "small swarms," with around five to 10 drones focusing on a single target.

Full-scale swarms on real-life targets are yet to be seen, he added, where tens of drones would strike a critical target simultaneously to overwhelm defense systems.

The possibility of larger-scale industrial production being undertaken in Russia, however, "opens up the possibility of much larger salvos of drones that actually do more to meet the definition of swarming."

Swarming would be one way to overcome some of the Shahed's weaknesses, Knights suggested, such as their lack of accuracy and lack of weapon impact.

"It's going to overcome defenses, particularly the high value defenses, like surface to air missile systems."

Combating Drones Comes at a Cost

Cost is a key consideration for Ukraine, Knights and Rubin said. The Shahed drones, at around $30,000, are far cheaper than the price tag attached to Ukraine's defensive missile systems. Against a swarm of the inexpensive drones, Knights said, the financial cost of attempting to shoot down UAVs with advanced missile systems becomes "crippling."

"At that point, you just give up. You don't use the advanced missile systems, you only use your gun systems and passive defenses," Knights added.

Currently, Ukraine is achieving "good results" fending off the current level of drone threat, he said. "But once you start to increase the number of drones and they become true swarms, then that may well overcome the Ukrainian defenses."

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Kremlin was progressing with plans to build a new Russian factory for the production of at least 6,000 Iranian-designed drones.

Tehran long denied supplying the drones to Moscow, but admitted in November that the regime had sent a "small number" of UAVs to Russia "months before the Ukraine war." U.S. officials had previously said Iran had supplied the drones to Moscow.

The drones cannot typically carry large warheads, Knights stressed.

"It's a very, very precise weapon that is not going to affect a large area."

'If You Don't See Them, You Can't Shoot Them'

It is also hard for the Shahed drones to tackle moving targets, and the slow speed of the UAVs makes them easy prey for Ukraine's defenses. But only if Kyiv's forces spot them in time, Rubin said.

"When you find them, you shoot them. If you don't see them, you can't shoot them. And mostly you don't see them," Rubin said.

Ukraine Soldiers Fire At Drone
A Ukrainian serviceman attempts to shoot down a drone during an attack in Kyiv on October 17, 2022. It's been reported that the Kremlin is progressing with plans to build a new Russian factory for the production of at least 6,000 Iranian-designed drones. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

In January, Ukraine's Air Force spokesperson, Yuriy Ihnat, said the drones "become less visible on radar the closer they press to the ground."

"The radar antenna that detects the target will not see it if the target is flying below the level of the antenna," he told Ukrainian radio, according to Ukrainska Pravda.

Ukraine needs more air defense systems to effectively counter the drone attacks, Ihnat said.

Ukrainian troops have been making use of German-built and supplied Gepard anti-aircraft guns, which Ihnat told Politico are "effective against these UAVs, as well as against cruise missiles."

The 35mm self-propelled Gepards are thought to be a powerful weapon in Ukraine's arsenal. In November, Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba said they could be a "game-changer," adding: "Wish we had more of them."

"But this weaponry, which is intended for air defense of the ground forces, is not enough," Ihnat said.

The "physical hardening of targets" and resilient systems are the "real key" to protecting Ukraine from aerial drone assaults, Knights argued.

Equipping Ukrainian soldiers with Gepards will help to some extent, he said, but "it won't solve the basic problem of there probably being too many vulnerable nodes and not enough Gepards or other equivalents."

The Gepards are nonetheless cheaper than interceptor missiles, Knights said, adding there are other radar-guided self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons in storage that could potentially be supplied to Ukraine.

"So critical infrastructure protection, the thinking, the modeling, assistance to the hardening of facilities," he said. "That's something where the U.S. can and NATO can do a lot."