A nocturnal swarm of dozens of propeller-driven, low tech Russian kamikaze drones buzzed into air space above four Ukrainian regions early this morning, and most of them crashed and exploded where civilians live or work.
Russia wants the next raid to be worse, and it might well be.
The Oct. 6 attack of 30 flying bombs didn’t kill anyone, according to early reports. But, once again, flights of Iran-exported Shahed suicide drones forced tens of thousands of Ukrainian families from beds into air raid shelters, and buildings were blasted and property smashed at multiple locations across the country.
The Kremlin turned to mass purchases of the Shahed-136, a flying wing roughly the size of dining room table for six, in late 2022.
Moscow had run low of high tech cruise and ballistic missiles in an ultimately failed campaign at the time intended to force Ukraine to surrender by bombarding the country’s power grid, and needed a weapon to keep up the pressure.
Over time both sides’ tactics adapted to a new air space reality of more drones and less missiles fired at Ukraine.
The defending Ukrainians have come to rely more on mobile, automatic weapons fire driving into the path of a kamikaze drone wave, not least because their own NATO-standard anti-aircraft missiles can cost 50-100 times the incoming Iran-designed drone.
The most preferred anti-Shahed tool of the Ukrainian military, by far, is a Cold War-era German anti-aircraft system called a Gepard (or more formally “Flugabwehrkanonenpanzer”) whose radar-controlled targeting system reliably knocks down Russian drones or anything else flying coming into the relatively short range of a pair of powerful 30mm auto-cannon.
A Ukrainian Gepard SPAAG downs a Russian Shahed-131/136 over Odesa Oblast, 9/26. pic.twitter.com/YNVRZRgJzs— OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) September 26, 2023
Kremlin attack planners, for their part, have learned to exploit Ukrainian concerns about protecting major population centers from Russian air strikes, and learned that drones flown over almost any place Ukrainians live in numbers, is almost always reported to military authorities in time for the Gepards and technical pickups with machine guns to have a chance to drive into the path of the low-flying aircraft.
Another Russian tactic is launching multiple waves from a single site and splitting up the drone stream into separate flights later on.
This gives the Ukrainians less time to react and possibly confuses them as to where each 30-50 kg. warhead is being carried. Sometimes a distraction strike is launched in one direction to be followed up with an actual strike heading somewhere else.
The Russian command on Friday, according to Ukrainian reports, spread their mini-swarms hundreds of kilometers wide, sending one Shahed wave towards the eastern city of Kharkiv, another drone covey across battle lines in the Zaporizhzhia region to head in the direction of the central city Dnipro, a third mini-swarm directly across the Black Sea towards the port city Odesa, and fourth flock through air space over Kherson.
A final gaggle, launched 20 minutes later from a training area near Cape Chauda on the south Crimean coast, set out on a course towards the city Mykolaiv.
Some of the drones seem to have been intended not to hit targets, but just overtax Ukraine’s air defense network. Russian officials have praised the drones as a great investment because at $10-50,000 a kamikaze drone, Shaheds are so cheap that it makes sense to force the Ukrainians to expend anti-aircraft missiles costing ten to one hundred times that, even if the drone is taken out.
Air raid warnings swept across a land space around the size of France containing some 30-35 million mostly sleeping Ukrainians: Kherson, Odessa, Dnipro, Kirovohrad in the south, Cherkassy, Poltava, Khmeltnitsky in the center of the country; and even Chernihiv and Zhytomyr, in Ukraine’s north, up by the Belarusian border.
As has frequently been the Russian practice since mid-summer, one drone flight – probably the one spotted around Odesa – skirted the Romanian border and flew along the Danube River, in a rural region poorly-defended by the Ukrainians, and less than a kilometer from NATO air space.
The national air defense command made its totals and concluded it had by “the combined efforts of aviation assets, military anti-craft missiles, mobile fire groups and electronic warfare teams” shot down 25 of at least 33 drones thought to have been launched by the Russians.
Official Ukrainian sources as always said little about ground damage, but it was clear that at least one drone, and probably two or three, had smashed into Ukrainian riverside facilities and a ferry wharf in the vicinity of the Danube port city Reni.
Fires and explosions were perfectly visible and widely videoed from Romanian territory less than a half kilometer distant.
The scale of the Friday raid was, against the background of a major conventional war, relatively moderate.
A Sept. 21 Russian assault mixing drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles killed two, injured 26 and damaged residential buildings, warehouses, housing and fuel and power grid infrastructure and touched off partial blackouts in five Ukrainian regions.
According to statistics made public by Ukraine’s air force on Oct. 2, September 2023 was the worst month of the war for drone strikes, with 503 launches and 396 shoot downs.
US intelligence estimates reported by The Washington Post in August said the Russian Federation place a $2 billion order with Iran to set up a production line in Russia’s Tartarstan region capable of producing 6,000 drones by summer 2025, with continuing capacity of 226 drones per month.
The Post report said the plan might be vulnerable to western moves to block Russian or Iranian access to electronic components, including elements manufactured by Dallas-based Texas Instruments, Massachusetts-based Analog Devices and California-based AMD.
According to Ukrainian media, only one of the hundreds of sub-components currently used to assemble a Shahed drone, is actually made in Russia.
Ukraine air force spokesman Yury Ihnat in late September television comments said the Ukrainian military believes Russia will not just try to increase the numbers of drones launched, but their quality as well.
“A Shahed is inherently a difficult target as it is inconspicuous, small in size and has a low speed. Low speed is a problem for detection by either by a fighter or other systems,” Ihnat said.
“Therefore, our view is the enemy will improve both Shaheds and other weapons using composite materials, which makes them less visible to radar."
Russian and Iranian engineers are likely in future to improve the drones’ inertial navigation systems making them more resistant to jamming, he added.
Myhailo Podolyak in Oct. 3 comments to TSN television said the most practical solution to the growing Shahed drone threat, would be more deliveries of low-tech anti-aircraft systems like the German Gepard.
Ukraine currently operates around 30 Gepard systems – sufficient to defend at best four or five towns or ports against Russian drone attacks potentially directed at thousands of possible targets across Ukraine.
Hundreds more Gepards are known to be held in reserve stocks in Germany and Belgium, however, deployment to Ukraine could be complicated because the main manufacturer of the ammunition is Switzerland, whose government in past months fought hard not to deliver the cannon ammo to Ukraine, as Bern considered the transfer potentially threatening to Swiss neutrality.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated Zurich was the capital of Switzerland. It is in fact Bern.
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