What’s the best way for Ukraine to defend against Russia’s Iranian drones?

Russia has been using Iranian-made drones to terrorize Ukrainians by attacking their cities during the war, meaning that Ukraine has to defend itself against this threat.

 A soldier takes a photograph of his comrade as he poses beside a destroyed Russian tank and armoured vehicles, amid Russia's invasion on Ukraine, in Bucha, in Kyiv region (photo credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA)
A soldier takes a photograph of his comrade as he poses beside a destroyed Russian tank and armoured vehicles, amid Russia's invasion on Ukraine, in Bucha, in Kyiv region
(photo credit: REUTERS/ZOHRA BENSEMRA)

The Russian decision to rely on Iranian-style drones to terrorize Ukrainians by attacking cities means that Ukraine has to defend against this threat. Kyiv has already enjoyed impressive successes against Russian missile and drone threats. However, Moscow appears to be shifting to rely on these Iranian-style drones to pound Ukrainian cities. This is because Moscow has lost ground to Ukraine’s counter-offensives. Russia mobilized conscripts to try to hold on to other areas it illegally annexed after conquering parts of Ukraine in the last seven months. 

Now that Russia is shifting its strategy and tactics, many Western countries want to help Ukraine with its air defense needs. The question this poses is what kinds of air defenses are best for Ukraine. According to an article at the Kyiv Post, “Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile operators, ground cannon gunners and fighter jet pilots also decimated multiple waves of Iranian-made Shahed-136 and Russian-made Zala Lancet kamikaze drones on Tuesday, Oct. 11, knocking 19 of the remote-controlled aircraft out of the sky, the statement underlined.” 

What are reports showing?

What these reports show is that many types of air defenses can be used against slow-moving drones. The drones are easy to hear and often easy to see; they aren’t very large if they are flying too high, but they have a distinct sound. The Associated Press noted on October 13 that “the British government announced it would provide missiles for advanced NASAM [National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System] anti-aircraft systems that the Pentagon plans to send to Ukraine. The UK also is sending hundreds of aerial drones for information-gathering and logistics support, plus 18 howitzer artillery guns.”

The report also noted that “these weapons will help Ukraine defend its skies from attacks and strengthen their overall missile defense alongside the US NASAMS,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said. The NASAMS has radar-guided missiles that can shoot down warplanes and other threats.

Other NATO countries will reportedly send longer-range air defense systems. “Germany has delivered the first of four promised IRIS-T air defense systems, while France pledged more artillery, anti-aircraft systems and missiles. The Netherlands said it would send missiles, and Canada is planning about $50 million more in military aid, including winter equipment, drone cameras and satellite communications,” the report said. 

 Ukrainian service members speak to each other in the industrial area of the city of Sievierodonetsk, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine June 20, 2022. (credit: Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters) Ukrainian service members speak to each other in the industrial area of the city of Sievierodonetsk, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Ukraine June 20, 2022. (credit: Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters)

The overall issue now is making sure Ukraine has the kind of multi-layered integrated air defenses it needs. This can mean shoulder-launched Stinger missiles and also S-300s among the plethora of air defenses Ukraine has, some of which have origins in the West and others in the Soviet era. For instance, the S-300 is a Russian system and other countries in Eastern Europe have them. 

France has also said it will provide air defenses to Ukraine. “Speaking in an interview on France 2 television, Macron did not detail what type of anti-aircraft missiles or how many would be delivered," France 24 noted. "Paris has previously supplied Mistral shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. A source aware of the matter said Paris would provide Crotale short-range anti-air missiles, which are used to intercept low-flying missiles and aircraft.” 

As Western countries rush air defenses to Ukraine, there are other pressing needs. Ukraine needs the radars and command and control necessary to detect the threats and neutralize them with the best systems possible, as well as for warning civilians to go to shelters.

Shooting down slow-moving drones may not be a major challenge for modern air defenses; the challenge is detecting them when they are launched with longer-range warning systems, being able to warn civilians in the path of the drone, and then neutralize the threat using either guns, missiles or other systems. Guns can down drones, either air defense weapons or systems like CRAM, as well as small arms fire, apparently.  

There is no shortage of ways to shoot down the drone threat, but there may be a question of using the right interceptors and not wasting costly interceptors on drones. For instance, Russia is using dozens of drones in attacks and Ukraine is already downing upwards of 60%-80% of them; so Kyiv is doing well in this regard. Considering the fact that Israel’s Iron Dome has a stated 90% success rate in recent attempts to stop rockets from Gaza, Ukraine is already achieving impressive rates in its air defenses.  

This means the best way to defend against drones is to have the right detection systems to warn about their approach, warn residents in the targeted areas and then be able to use command and control and other systems to find the best and, if possible, most efficient and cost-effective interceptor along the route of the drone.