Soldiers of the Ukrainian National Guard fend off anti-aircraft guns

Anti-aircraft gunners with a Ukrainian National Guard air defense unit on a combat mission in August.Vyacheslav Madiyevskyi/Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

  • Ukraine’s flexible and adaptable air defenses have forced Russia to change its drone tactics.

  • In recent times, Russia has used large salvos of carefully routed drones to bypass Ukrainian defenses.

  • The dynamic is an example of Ukrainian effectiveness and Russian learning ability, an expert said.

Ukraine’s flexible and adaptable air defenses have forced Russia to change its drone tactics.

Instead of launching a few Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones at once, Russia sends in large salvos and carefully directs them to avoid Ukrainian defenses.

Ukraine’s interception rates have gotten “good enough that the Russians are now sort of saving their Iranian production allotments until they have large volumes,” Justin Bronk, an air power expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said on an April episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast.

Now Russia is rolling out “maybe 30 or 40” at a time, Bronk said.

Anti-aircraft machine gun of the Ukrainian troops

Ukrainian troops use a home-made anti-aircraft machine gun to destroy drones in Mykolaiv on November 9, 2022.STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This marks another twist in the drone war between Russia and Ukraine. In the days following the Russian invasion of February 2022, Ukrainian drones armed with anti-tank missiles or even home-made bombs wreaked havoc on Russian armored columns.

Then, in late summer 2022, just as Ukraine appeared capable of containing the Russian Air Force, Moscow began bombarding Ukraine’s infrastructure with waves of cheap Shahed drones that overwhelmed Ukraine’s air defenses.

“Drip-feeding of many, many shaheds over a period of several months” has also depleted Ukraine’s stockpile of air defense missiles and grenades, Bronk said.

In return, Ukraine has formed mobile air defense teams armed with a variety of short-range and man-portable weapons, including self-propelled anti-aircraft guns like the Soviet-era Shilka and German-made Gepard, shoulder-launched missiles like the US-made Stinger and even by Soviet-designed DShK heavy machine guns paired with searchlights, Bronk said.

Ukrainian soldier MANPADS shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile

A Ukrainian soldier with a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile in Donetsk in May 2022.Agency Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu via Getty Images

This approach has proven remarkably successful. “Even people with DShKs get a lot better with these guns because they have a lot of practice,” Bronk said. “If you learn how to lead targets, even crew operated, non-radar guided firing can be very effective.”

Ukraine has also mobilized the public for the anti-drone war. “They have some clever apps that allow ordinary people to essentially quickly report sightings of UAVs, missiles, planes into some kind of centralized data collection function,” Bronk said.

At the start of the war, Ukrainians used a repurposed government services app to report Russian movements on the ground.

A similar system was used in World War II. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, civilian volunteers from the Royal Observer Corps reported sightings of German bombers to a central air defense network. Once the bombers flew past coastal radars and reached inland areas where radar coverage was more sparse, ground controllers could use the Observer Corps reports to track the raids and direct RAF fighters to intercept them.

Ukrainian troops fire an S60 anti-aircraft gun at Bakhmut

Ukrainian troops fire an S60 anti-aircraft gun at Russian positions near Bakhmut in March.ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Because Ukraine is so big — just a tad smaller than Texas — Russian drones have to travel a long way to hit targets deep in the country, Bronk noted. While the Shahed-136 has an estimated range of around 1,550 miles, it only has a top speed of around 185 km/h.

“They’re pretty slow,” Bronk said. “If you can get a picture of where they’re going — which isn’t easy — there’s often time to deploy mobile teams, direct them to the likely routes, and shoot down the drones.”

Of course, Russia has changed its tactics. It has started sending in a few drones ahead of the main attack wave to get the attention of Ukraine’s anti-aircraft stations “and see what lights up,” Bronk said. “If they manage to find out where the air defenses are in a certain area, they change the route of the main shock wave to avoid it. So this is both an example of how Russia is learning and adapting, and a testament to how effective Ukraine’s defenses are now.”

However, Ukraine’s mobile anti-drone teams are most effective against drones flying at lower altitudes on deep penetration missions.

On the front lines, Russia can deploy a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, from small quadcopters to the Orlan-10, which flies at altitudes between about 5,000 feet and 16,000 feet and collects real-time data to guide Russian artillery.

Anti-aircraft machine guns of the Ukrainian troops

Ukrainian troops at a handover ceremony for 10 donated machine gun vehicles for mobile anti-aircraft groups in Kyiv in April.STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The Orlan is one of the biggest problems because it can fly beyond the range of man-portable air defense missiles and anti-aircraft guns,” Bronk said. “This essentially means that in order to shoot them down, Ukraine will have to deploy radar-guided surface-to-air missile systems like the Osa or Buk. It’s one of the things that takes up so much of their ammo capacity.”

Recently leaked US government intelligence assessments from February warned that Ukraine is running out of ammunition for its anti-aircraft weapons, particularly the surface-to-air missiles needed to fend off Russian jets.

While Western countries have scramble to provide more of this ammunition, dwindling stocks mean Ukraine must use its air defense resources more judiciously — and as they have done since the war began, Ukrainians will continue to improvise.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine, and other publications. He has a Masters in Political Science. Keep following him Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider


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