Last week in a piece for Newsweek I told them that the drone Iran is sending to Russia are not very effective weapons in spite of the fact that they are being used against relatively undefended civilian targets instead of military targets. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are claiming that they have shot down 85% of the Iranian drones sent against them, mostly the Shahid-136 type with a delta wing and a propeller-driven engine.
As I told Newsweek, these drones are not very effective looking at the number of attacks versus the number of casualties they have inflicted on Ukrainian civilians, but that may not matter to the Russians.
They are using these drones as a means of terrorizing the civilian population in an attempt to break their will, which is not going to be easy.
Ukraine is fighting for its existence not just as a country but as a culture and a people. They have powerful allies in the West providing them with training, weapons, and support. They enjoy the support of most of the world in beating back the invader. They have effective leadership in their government which does not needlessly waste their lives in battle. Finally, they are winning on the ground and pushing Russian troops back, or encircling them and forcing them to surrender.
It’s very hard to break the will of a people who have all of that going for them.
On the reverse side of things, it is also very hard for this war to break the will of the Russian people but for different reasons. The will of the Russian people is not expressed in its government. They have no say in the affairs of their government nationally, opposition is brutally suppressed with beatings, jail time, and even the outright murder of those opposed to Putin and his policies. They are simply dragged along behind whatever their government wants to do.
There is passive resistance to the war that is reflected in the fact that Russian men are not lining up at the recruiting offices to volunteer to fight. In fact, tens of thousands have fled Russia or are hiding out within its vast expanse to avoid being drafted. This is why in the occupied regions of Ukraine that Russia claimed they were saving from oppression coming from Kyiv, they have declared martial law, effectively making them vast prison camps for the populations there. People are being forcibly evacuated, a dusk-to-dawn curfew is in effect, all travel is restricted and by permission, and Russia is rounding up military-aged males to serve in the army.
These mass drone attacks on civilians will come and go as Russia expends its stocks and waits for new inventory to arrive from Iran. Ukraine will have a difficult time defending its cities and infrastructure from these attacks. It would take thousands of troops with anti-aircraft guns to ring its cities with defenses. These guns have to be stationed outside of the cities at some distance because they too are dangerous to civilians on the ground. What goes up as a 20mm or 30mm cannon round then comes down as several pounds of very hot metal that will kill civilians on the ground cause, collateral damage to structures, and even start fires.
Using large anti-aircraft missiles against them may not work very well, These drones may only cost about $20,000 while the missile is more than $100,000. The same goes for missiles fired at the drones, these missiles are much more expensive and even harder to replace than the drone. Since these drones are powered by propeller-driven gasoline engines, their heat signature may not be big enough to for infrared seekers on missiles to locate and track until they are very close, which means you have to use radar-guided missiles which are more expensive to build.
The Shahid-136 flies at low altitude, and low speed and is only about 6 ft across in terms of wingspan. This is can make them hard to find using large air defense radars, at least those available to Ukraine right now.
Ukraine’s anti-drone strategy would likely be one of prevention rather than waiting to engage them when they are coming at them in a swarm which is how the Russians are trying to use them.
If the Shahid has one critical vulnerability it’s that it needs GPS coordinates to navigate to its target and it receives that signal from small ground stations and portable booster antennas prepositioned along its path of flight. Russia is believed to have replaced the off-the-shelf GPS navigation system Iran uses in the Shahid-136 and replaced it with GLONASS which is Russia’s own military global positioning system using space-based satellites. To do this the Russians had to reduce the warhead payload, perhaps by half. Using the off the shelf civilian GPS transceivers would make them easy to defeat. That system is controlled by the US which can alter the positional accuracy of the GPS signal with a few keystrokes and make the drones miss by a mile.
The way Ukraine can defeat these drones using GLONASS is by Electronic Counter Measures or ESM. By blocking the signal from GLONASS, Ukraine would also block the navigation signal sent to these drones which are not known to have any internal guidance system or cameras as a backup system.
The problem is that Ukraine also used GLONASS for its own military prior to the war beginning. Presumably, they are now using the GPS system belonging to the US if we are giving them Excalibre artillery rounds and HIMARS rockets which need this system to attain accuracy down to a few feet.
On the ground, Ukraine could make use of systems like “Leonidas” developed by Epirus. beyond just jamming the navigation signal, Leonidis is a directed energy weapon that uses a High Power Microwave signal to fry the electronics of a drone and cause it to drop from the sky almost instantly. Leonidas can take on both fixed-wing and quadcopter drones and can engage single targets or swarms. Using a tightly focused beam it can take out a single enemy drone leaving friendly drones untouched. It is powerful enough to even disable the outboard motor on a powerboat in a demonstration. The latest version of Leonidas can fit on a pickup truck and they also have a smaller pod version that can be carried by another drone or aircraft.
General Dynamics has fitted the system to the Stryker vehicle for the army and Northup/Grumman has also contracted with Epirus for maritime applications for the navy.
The effective range and full capabilities of this system are classified as you might expect and this is the most likely reason they will not be sent ot Ukraine. There are lots of companies around the world competing in the $5 billion dollar market for Counter UAV systems and for the army and the navy to have both picked the Epirus-Leonidas system makes it pretty clear that it’s the standout system among competitors in the market.
Ukraine would need several hundred of these units to defend its cities and infrastructure from attack, which is an expense probably much greater than the cost of the Shahid drones themselves, assuming manufacturers can make them quickly enough. This will mean very few of these systems will be available to Ukraine in the near future.
This leaves Ukraine with the options of finding and killing the Shahid launch trailers(they contain 6 drones each) or the portable signal booster towers, or the places where the drones are controlled from with a lesser reliance on signal jamming them in flight or using scarce and expensive directed energy weapons against them. Ukraine might also find a way to disable GLONASS or spoof its signal to send the drones off course o make them crash harmlessly into the ground. In recent years Russia has allowed the system to deteriorate in terms of the number of satellites it operates on. Between October 10th and the 18th, Russian launched Soyuz, Proton and Angara rockets into space to deploy new GLONASS satellites into orbit. These satellites are probable replacements for a failed attempt earlier this year when the deployed satellites failed to activate in their orbits. GLONASS is said to require as many as 24 satellites in three orbital planes orbit to provide global coverage and these recent deployments will give them 27 in orbit. Ukraine is using its own organic hacker army to try and disable GLONASS and these recent launches may mean they are having some success with that.
Until they perfect the countermeasures Ukraine will continue to suffer harassing attacks from these Iranian drones.