Ukraine continues to shoot down Russian drones, but the price is high
Explosive drones are heavy and loud and relatively easy to fire from the sky, and over the New Year weekend, according to Ukraine, its military shot down each of the approximately 80 Russia sent into the country.
“Such results have never been achieved before,” a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force said on Tuesday.
But some military experts question whether the successes are sustainable.
Ukraine is becoming increasingly adept at shooting down drones, but there is a growing imbalance: many of its defensive weapons like surface-to-air missiles cost far more than drones. And that, according to some military experts, could favor Moscow in the long run.
Artem Starosiek, the head of Molfar, a Ukrainian consultancy that supports the country’s war effort, estimated that it costs up to seven times more to shoot down a drone with a missile than to launch one. This is an equation on which the Kremlin could bet, according to some analysts.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an overnight speech, warned that Russia was betting on “depleting our people, our air defense, our energy sector.”
Ukraine vowed not to be intimidated by the air assault, but the attacks were relentless.
Molfar said his group estimated that since September Russia had launched about 600 drones at Ukraine. The campaign, targeted at infrastructure and accompanied by numerous missile strikes, cut off electricity, heating and water across Ukraine just as the country’s harsh winter was beginning to bite, deepening the misery of the country. a Russian invasion approaching its first anniversary.
The Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones that Moscow has increasingly relied on since October are relatively simple and fairly cheap devices, while the range of weapons used to shoot them out of the skies can be much more expensive, according to experts. Self-destructing drones can cost as little as $20,000 to produce, while the cost to fire a surface-to-air missile can range from $140,000 for a Soviet-era S-300 to $500,000 for a missile. from an American NASAMS.
Since the start of the war in February, both sides have used drones not only for reconnaissance but also for attacks. This is the first time the devices have been deployed on such a large scale in a European war. Some military experts see Ukraine as a testing ground for advanced weapons and information systems that could foreshadow the shape of warfare for generations to come.
Kyiv’s military authorities have said little about the details of their air defenses – in line with the operational secrecy that shrouded much of their war planning – or the cost, making analysis difficult.
But it is known that while Ukrainian forces had some success against drones using anti-aircraft guns and even small arms fire, that changed as the Russians began launching assaults at night. Today, Kyiv also relies heavily on missiles fired from combat aircraft and from the ground. Over the weekend, officials said, Ukraine repeatedly used surface-to-air missiles fired from NASAMS – for National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System – to counter drones.
Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the CNA research institute, said the Ukrainians were using “a zoo of different air defense systems” to combat the threat, including Soviet-era missile systems. and NATO, each with its own cost profile.
Some of the Ukrainian anti-aircraft guns, such as the Gepard 2 radar-directed mobile gun system, are inexpensive compared to other Soviet-era and European defense systems being deployed. But some of the American-made interceptor missiles are quite expensive compared to drones.
Even so, assessing the wisdom of shooting down drones with missiles isn’t always straightforward.
George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of Warfare, said he suspected Ukraine of deploying more complex and expensive air defense systems to protect sensitive and critical infrastructure.
It costs much less, for example, to shoot down a drone than to repair a destroyed power plant, Starosiek noted. And then there is the human factor.
“People are still alive,” he said.
Mathieu Boulegue, consultant for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based research organization, said Ukraine currently has enough air defense weapons and ammunition to counter the Russian drone threat.
“The cost is irrelevant as long as the West continues to provide military assistance to Ukraine,” Boulegue said. “The problem for Kyiv is when they don’t have enough ammunition stock in their air defense chain to shoot down these drones.”
Aware of the risk that Western allies could grow weary of the cost of supporting Ukraine’s defense – a concern heightened by the transfer of the leadership of the US House of Representatives to Republicans – Ukrainian officials warned that Russian tactics were in jeopardy. changing.
The White House said it is aware of reports that the Kremlin and Tehran are seeking to establish a joint drone production line in Russia. In the long term, Boulegue said, this would allow Moscow to deploy even more drones in attacks.
“It will put more pressure on Ukraine’s air defense system,” he said.
This helps explain why Ukraine has adapted its own tactics, in part by carrying out strikes on bases deep inside Russian territory. The aim, Mr Boulegue said, is “to increase deterrence, which they hope will put less pressure on air defence”.
For now, Moscow has changed the way it uses the drones it already has in hand.
Russian forces are increasingly launching their explosive drones at night and at low altitudes along the Dnipro River, making it harder for Ukraine to detect them, according to Yurii Ihnat, the army’s spokesman. Ukrainian air, who spoke on Ukrainian radio.
“The radar antenna that detects the target will not see it if the target flies below antenna level,” he said.
Andrew E. Kramer, Julian E. Barnes, Jean Ismay and Bengali Shashank contributed report.
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