Air Defense: Ukraine Innovates to Defeat New Threats

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October 30, 2022: Ukraine is currently detecting and intercepting nearly 90 percent of the Iranian-made Shahed 136 UAVs serving as cruise missiles. The 200 kg (440 pound) Shahed 136 has a flight endurance of four or five hour at about 180 kilometers an hour carrying explosive warheads with 25 kg (55 pounds) of explosives. Shahed 136s are believed to cost about $50,000 each, with most of that ($30,000) being their gasoline engine. Both versions of Shaded (one is a bit larger) use GPS navigation with a crude INS (inertial navigation system) backup. Russia replaced the GPS guidance with one dependent on Russian GLONAS satellite navigation in an effort to increase reliability and effectiveness. Shahed 136 operates at low (a few hundred meters at most) altitude to avoid radar detection. These missiles are launched either individually using a portable launch rail or from a truck mounted system carrying four or five missiles in a box type storage/launch container. A small rocket is attached to the bottom of the missile to get it airborne and the engine running. The rocket is then supposed to fall away. GPS locations have to be entered into the GPS system before launch.

The Ukrainians quickly developed tactics to defeat the Shahed 136s, especially those used against military targets. The low-flying Shahed 136 engine is so loud it can be heard several kilometers away and, while rifle and machine-gun bullets are effective against it, larger caliber weapons like 12.7mm machine-guns and 20mm or larger autocannon are much more lethal. Another vulnerability of the Shahed 136 is that its inexpensive components are often unreliable and a large portion of them fail before reaching a target. These usually crash-land intact, allowing detailed analysis of components and construction. Another vulnerability is to electronic AUD (Anti-UAV Defense) systems that employ jamming and other EW (Electronic Warfare) techniques to disable UAV guidance systems.

Israel has quietly provided Ukraine with details of how it defeated Shahed 136s launched from Lebanon. This includes details of AUDs Israel has developed. Ukraine has already received an American AUD (Anti UAV Defense) system called Vampire. This system is palletized, with all components attached to a shipping pallet that can be mounted in a light truck, and consists of a telescoping mast mounting a electro-optical/infrared modular sensor ball and laser designator, a generator for power and a launcher that carries four APKWS 70mm laser-guided rockets. These weigh only 15 kg (32 pounds) each and have a range of about a thousand meters when fired from the ground. Vampire can be used to detect and fire APKWS laser guided rockets at air and even ground targets. Any UAV, cruise missile or helicopter within range is vulnerable. Vampire is designed to be reconfigured, which is the kind of system Ukrainians prefer. Its launcher is also designed to use new, longer-range APKWS rockets. Ukrainians are expected to modify Vampire to better suit their needs or simply to obtain longer range while carrying more rockets ready to fire.

Ukraine has the people and manufacturing ability to quickly develop an AUD system that relies on jamming or disabling the guidance systems of UAVs like Shahed 136. Ukrainian countermeasures have already led Russia to use Shahed 136 against cities and other civilian targets. These large-area targets are more difficult to defend with AUDs. That means more Shahed 136s hit something, even if it’s a building. The small Shahed 136 warhead does not do a lot of damage but Russia is running out of larger guided missiles and has been depending more on large unguided rockets and old ASM (Surface to Air Missiles) modified for hitting ground targets. The larger and faster guided missiles are saved for important military targets while the smaller missiles, like Shahed 136 are used against infrastructure and civilians. Even with nearly 90 percent of Shahed 136s intercepted, enough get through to damage infrastructure, especially power plants.

The Shahed 136 launch sites are in portions of Crimea outside the 80-kilometer range of Ukrainian GMLRS guided rockets. The search for the launch sites also revealed that Iran had sent technical advisors to help the Russians use Shahed 136 effectively. In the past, Shahed 136 attacks were more successful because the target wasn’t expecting them. Ukraine developed a cell-phone app that enables users, including those in Russian occupied areas, to report Russian activity. This now includes Shahed 136 sightings. Russia has not only lost the element of surprise but this network of civilian spotters enables Ukrainian air defense forces to quickly detect and track an incoming Shahed 136 attack.

Shahed 136 attacks are supposed to demoralize Ukrainian civilians and weaken the war effort but it has the opposite effect, making Ukrainians angrier at the Russians and more determined to drive them out of Ukraine. These attacks on civilians were going on before the Shahed 136s arrived. The Russians used guided missiles that were more difficult to intercept but were also in limited supply and Russia was unable to replace those used because of sanctions. Iran was one of the few nations supporting the Russian invasion and offered to sell Russia the cruise and ballistic missiles it manufactures. Iranian stocks of these missiles are limited and a current outbreak of nationwide protests against the Iranian religious dictatorship appears to have disrupted production. The many nations threatened or under attack by Iranian missiles appreciate the situation where Iran is reducing its stockpile of these weapons in order to supply Russia.

 


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