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Ukraine in danger of running out of air defenses as Russia launches relentless drone attacks

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Ukrainian firefighters works on a destroyed building after a drone attack in Kyiv on October 17, 2022.
Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

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

Russia has bombarded the country over recent weeks with a tide of cheap Iran-supplied drones which are destroying the country’s energy infrastructure.

“The West must avoid complacency about the need to urgently bolster Ukrainian air-defence capacity,” the defense and security think tank RUSI said.

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

The U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley rejected that claim, saying Tehran supplied drones to Russia in the summer.

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

Local residents look at parts of an unmanned aerial vehicle, what Ukrainian authorities consider to be an Iranian-made drone Shahed-136, after a Russian drone strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv on Oct. 17, 2022.
Vladyslav Musiienko | Reuters

“If Ukrainian SAMs [surface-to-air missile systems] are not resupplied with ammunition, and ultimately augmented and replaced with Western equivalents over time, Russian Aerospace Forces [the VKS] will regain the ability to pose a major threat,” the analysts said.

On Sunday night, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Iranian regime was helping Russia prolong the war, saying “if it was not for the Iranian supply of weapons to the aggressor, we would be closer to peace now.” He also warned that Russia needed Iranian missiles for a “possible repetition of mass attacks on our infrastructure.”

For its part, Ukraine continues to plead for more air defense weapons to help it combat Russian drone and missile attacks. RUSI’s analysts agree that Ukraine requires urgent assistance to ensure that “Kyiv can counter Moscow’s updated approach to the air war in Ukraine.”

Strategic air attacks

In the early months of the war against Ukraine, Russia’s attempts at strategic air attacks were limited to expensive cruise and ballistic missile barrages and were on a much more limited scale, RUSI’s experts said, noting that “these failed to achieve strategically decisive damage during the first seven months of the invasion.”

In the last few months, however, Russia has deployed hundreds of explosive-carrying drones supplied by Iran that have been used to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, depriving hundreds of thousands of people of water and electricity as colder temperatures set in.

Essentially propeller-powered missiles, these drones are cheap to buy; reports suggest they cost around $20,000 per unit, compared to a cruise missile that can cost several million dollars. Also, while they aren’t able to perform sophisticated maneuvers and contain smaller quantities of explosives to conventional missiles, they can be sent in “swarms” to loiter above their target and are harder for radar systems to detect.

Images showed Kyiv’s police attempting to shoot down drones during an attack last month that targeted residential buildings and energy facilities.

A police officer fires at a flying drone following attacks in Kyiv on October 17, 2022.
Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP | Getty Images

RUSI’s defense analysts said the use of Iranian drones had changed the character of Russia’s air attack strategy, noting that the latest iteration “is a more focused and sustainable bombardment of the Ukrainian electricity grid, blending hundreds of cheap Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 loitering munitions against substations with continued use of cruise and ballistic missiles against larger targets.”

What Ukraine needs

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

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

“In the medium term, Ukraine needs cost-effective 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 Russian Aerospace Forces, or VKS. “Russian pilots have been cautious throughout the war, so even a small number of Western fighters [jets] could have a major deterrent effect.”

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