Ukraine Enters a Dark New Era of Drone Warfare

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While Ukraine has already had some success in intercepting these drones, the country is still scrambling to respond to Russia’s new strategy. The military was able to shoot down 15 of 20 Iranian drones launched yesterday, according to a Facebook post by the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

But shooting them down is easier said than done. A Shahed-136 is hard to detect. These drones fly low, meaning radar systems struggle to see them. “Unfortunately, it is not possible to hit 100 percent [of them] because the target is difficult,” Ukraine’s air force spokesperson, Yuriy Ihnat, told Reuters. To compensate, Ukraine has started crowdsourcing ways to detect drones early. The country’s armed forces launched an Android app called ePPO

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, which asks civilians to report sightings of cruise missiles or drones, and share what direction they are traveling.

Once Ukrainians can detect the drones, they still need to figure out the best way to target them. Electronic warfare tools, such as GPS jammers, don’t work well, because analysts believe the Shahed-136s are programmed with their target’s location before they take off.

The ideal way to shoot them down would be with long-range missiles, says Marcel Plichta, a former US Department of Defense analyst who is now a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But these are many, many times more expensive than the drone itself, which in terms of sustainability is an issue.” Shorter-range air defenses are cheaper, he says. “But they also have a lot less range, so you’re risking not being able to shoot them all down before they reach their targets.”

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And if Ukraine focuses all its defenses on Shahed-136s, there’s a risk the drones could act as a decoy for other attacks. The conflict in Yemen between the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels has shown that missiles are more likely to hit their targets if air defense systems are distracted with drones, says Plichta.

The best option would be to stop or sabotage the drones before they ever take off, says Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader in humanitarian disarmament at PAX, a Dutch organization that campaigns to end armed violence. Yesterday, the European Union announced it would freeze the assets of three Iranian generals and Shahed Aviation Industries, the company responsible for developing the Shahed-136. Sabotaging the drones themselves, however, is made more difficult by the fact a Shahed-136 is estimated to have a 1,000-kilometer range, which means these drones have been launched by Russia from Belarus and Russian-occupied Crimea, according to Rudik.

Ukraine’s drone problem is one reason the country has been reaching out to Israel, Zwijnenburg says. “Israel has a lot of knowledge on the type of drones Iran produces.” However, Israel—which has previously limited its assistance to Ukraine to humanitarian relief—said this week it would only help the country develop an early-warning system to better protect civilians from air attacks.

“We need air force protection systems, the sophisticated ones,” says Rudik, adding it’s not just Israel who has these systems but also the US, the UK, and some European countries.

“This is something that we have been asking since day one of the invasion. And it’s an incredible frustration for us that right now, eight months into the war, we are still asking for the same thing.”

Update 9:35 am ET, 10-21-22: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the estimated cost of the Shahed-136 drones, which analysts believe are priced at $20,000 to $30,000.

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