How can Ukraine counteract the emerging threat of Iranian suicide drones Shahed-136 and Shahed-131?


It was only a matter of time before the Russian Federation began to attack Ukrainian cities with Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 loitering munitions for the purpose of destroying their important military targets, and now the search for cheap and effective countermeasures is very urgent for Ukraine.

The Russian army began to actively use Iranian kamikaze drones for attacks on cities. The first city to be hit by them was Odesa , which before that was shelled by the Russian side by “Iskanders”, “Kalibres”, etc.

And now the problem of counteracting this new threat becomes a rather important issue. In particular, a detailed analysis of Shahed-131 showed that it has a relatively low cost and uses civilian components. In fact, the Russian Federation, following the example of the Iran, may well set up a mass production unit of such kamikaze drones. Although, given the primitiveness and lack of guidance systems, Shahed-136 and Shahed-131 are rather more correctly classified as “aircraft missiles”.

On the front line and in general with regard to the positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, protection against these Iranian-made weapons may well be a set of measures, of course, in addition to strengthening the means of air defense: camouflage, creation of false positions, encirclement, active suppression of GPS and countering the Russian intelligence. But all these measures cannot be extended to the protection of cities.

Although strikes by such drones cannot change the balance of power, the task assigned to them by the Russian Federation is to attack the targets with regular strikes. And unfortunately, due to the low cost of such kamikaze drones, such strikes may well become systematic and permanent.

The Air Force of Ukraine is capable of shooting down Shahed-136 and Shahed-131. And they are already intercepting them with the help of anti-aircraft missile systems in a effective way. But anti-aircraft missiles are used to destroy them, which are designed to destroy aircrafts and cruise missiles.

It is not a shame to admit for Ukraine, but the cost of a conventional missile of the Buk air defense system may well be higher than the cost of a conventional Shahed-136. And the lack of missiles for these complexes, as well as for any others, is extremely dangerous in general for the defense capability of Ukraine as a whole. And an exchange even 1:1 in these conditions may simply be unprofitable in the current conditions.

But even in these conditions there are certain options for effective countermeasures. Some of them are difficult to implement, some are pointless.

In particular, the most effective countermeasure in general is the destruction of the drone launchers, but the flight range of such drones is, according to various estimates, 500-900 km, while Iran declares about 2,000 km in general. That is, in this case, ATACMS will not help.

It is also possible to consider, at least, a controversial idea from the time of the Second World War – to put anti-aircraft machine guns on the roofs and shoot the sky with rifle and machine gun fire.

Damage from small arms does not always work, and more precisely – is very unlikely to lead to the destruction of such a kamikaze drone in the air. And even if it is damaged, it will still fall somewhere in the middle of the city.

It is also unlikely that the entire city, or rather hundreds of cities and thousands of square kilometers of the country, will be covered by means of GPS suppression. Regarding the possibility of covering only certain objects with such obstacles, this will only lead to the fact that the Shahed-131/6 will simply deviate from the set coordinate by several tens of meters (because they have a primitive inertial system).

That is, we are talking about the need for guaranteed destruction of such barrage ammunition. The linear option is to strengthen air defense specifically against these types of targets, and at the same time cruise missiles. In these conditions, the AN/TWQ-1 Avenger may be the most effective option. In fact, the same MANPADS Stinger, but not based on the HMMWV and eight missiles at once, which allows even one complex to repel a fairly massive air attack.

The main advantage of these systems over calculations with MANPADS is automation, when the launcher can be automatically deployed towards the target, which significantly reduces the time for its search and guidance. But the transfer of these air defense systems, although a certain need for them was formed quite a long time ago, has not yet been discussed at all. And the real need is tens of Avengers Systems.

Another rather interesting option is anti-aircraft artillery complexes, such as the German Gepard, for which such an application can be quite effective. But, again, everything rests on their number, as well as the resources of barrels and machine guns, which are quite limited in such systems designed to destroy aircrafts and helicopters.

That is why, to combat this type of target, they began to create projectiles with programmed detonation (AHEAD), which allow to destroy such targets with a high guarantee in a short sequence. But the cost of these systems, and even more so of new ammunition, at one time inhibited their development and production. And in fact, they still remain in a rather limited number.

Because of this, extremely promising laser systems capable of firing such kamikaze drones remain “overboard”. Because the total number of manufactured systems, for example, like the Turkish Alka, is quite limited.

In such a situation, it is quite possible to start considering the possibility of deconserving the S-60 anti-aircraft guns, of course, if there is still a sufficient number of shells for them, and also to prepare accurate calculations. And also, of course, to increase the number of ZU-23-2.

But other options are quite possible, which can be considered on the basis of what is already actively supplied to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. For example, APKWS missiles with laser guidance. These missiles were primarily considered as a means of destroying ground targets, first for aviation, and then for ground launchers. But technically, there is little that prevents their use against a low-speed, low-altitude and non-maneuverable air target.

Another and even cheaper tool was introduced back in 2017 in Ukraine – ZRN-01 Stokrotka. A joint project created by one of the Ukrainian state-owned enterprises and the Polish WB Group, it consisted in the creation of RS-80P missiles with a programmable detonator, the data of which was entered by the Polish control system, which measured the parameters of the target with a laser range finder, calculated the “meeting point” and set the time of detonation of the missile in in the air.

Target search was carried out by a radar and a GS400 optoelectronic head. The range for hitting air targets such as helicopters was declared at the level of up to 4 km. But this project was accepted then with more than considerable skepticism. It also did not receive funding.

But of course, as is often the case, the correct response to countering such drones should be a whole set of measures: airspace surveillance systems, an increase in the number of air defense systems, an expansion of MANPADS posts, perhaps an increase in the number of anti-aircraft artillery systems, the purchase, lease or receipt of some samples laser complexes, etc.

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