With an intense, hastily assembled effort, the Ukrainian military is pioneering successful techniques in the difficult art of anti-drone warfare.
By Andrew E. Kramer
Oct. 23, 2022
The New York Times
KYIV, Ukraine — Directed by ground controllers tracking a drone on radar, a Ukrainian fighter jet pilot, code-named Juice, streaked through the sky in pursuit, hoping to sneak up behind the slow-moving Iranian-made craft and take it down with a missile. But on this day, as on many others, Juice found nothing. Shooting down noisy, propeller-driven Iranian-made drones is a frustrating business and harder than it might seem. It takes multiple actors on the ground and in the air working closely together for 24 hours a day. “The last few weeks were very busy, very exhausting for us,” Juice said of the air war against the drones, dozens of which Russia has deployed daily. “It’s still very, very difficult to shoot them down.”
The war in Ukraine is now fought in two mostly separate arenas: on the ground in the south and east, where the Ukrainian Army has the upper hand, and in the air, where Russia is firing long-range missiles and deploying the exploding Iranian-made drones to cripple the electrical and heating infrastructure in Ukrainian cities in the hopes of demoralizing the population.
Since Russia began terrorizing Ukrainian cities in September with the drones, Ukraine has turned its focus to an intense counter-drone strategy, made up on the fly but often surprisingly successful.
Currently, it consists of three layers of protection: fighter jets that patrol around the clock; ground-fired antiaircraft missiles; and teams of soldiers with machine guns who try to shoot the drones down as they fly past.
The hardest part is simply finding the drones, Juice said. On radar, the small, plodding drones can be confused with migrating birds or trucks on a highway. Ground controllers identify potential targets and direct jets to intercept them, but often the pilots come up empty.
Despite the hurdles, the Ukrainian military is now routinely shooting down more than 70 percent of the Shahed-136 drones Russia purchased from Iran in August, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to the Ukrainian minister of defense, said in an interview.
Ukraine shot down the first such drone in the country’s east on Sept. 13 and has since downed at least 237, the Ukrainian military said in a statement last week. “We are trying to quickly adapt to the new reality,” Mr. Sak said.
Exploding drones are a rapidly emerging class of weapons that are proliferating around the world and likely to become a staple of modern armed conflicts, military analysts say. That is a point that Ukrainian officials have been making in seeking air defense assistance from their allies. If
Ukraine can learn to shoot the drones down with its three-pronged effort, allied countries’ militaries could reap the benefits of this hard-won experience, Mr. Sak said.
There have been notable successes.
One Ukrainian MiG pilot won folk hero status in Ukraine this month for shooting down five Iranian Shahed-136 drones over the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, only to be forced to eject after crashing into the debris of the last one. The pilot, Karaya — who identified himself by only his nickname, according to military policy — told the local news media afterward, “Within a short period of time, we are adapting to this kind of weapon and are starting to destroy it successfully.”
After colliding with the airborne debris, he said, Karaya steered his MiG away from Vinnytsia and ejected. The jet crashed into houses in an outlying area, but injured nobody on the ground. Karaya later visited the site to apologize. “I visited the scene, said I was sorry for the discomfort I caused the residents and thanked them for their steel nerves,” he wrote on Instagram, saying he showed up in his tattered uniform, missing epaulets. He joked that it was a violation of military protocol. “Lost them while leaving the office,” he wrote.
While fighter jets have been effective against Iranian drones, said Yurii Ignat, a Ukrainian Air Force spokesman, the approach is costly because of its use of air-to-air missiles. “It’s frustrating that we must hit these drones with expensive missiles,” he said. “What else can we do? This is the reality now.”
Before Russia’s arsenal included the Iranian-made drones, beginning in August, Ukraine had an edge in drone warfare. Ukrainian soldiers along the front line flew off-the-shelf commercial drones to spot targets and drop grenades on Russian trenches. The United States has supplied Ukraine with its Switchblade drones, a type of exploding drone. Ukraine has also deployed Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones — larger, longer-range craft that surveil the battlefield and fire guided missiles.
In August, the United States promised that within the next nine months it would deliver to Ukraine a small, compact counter-drone missile system that could be mounted on the back of an ordinary pickup truck. The so-called Vampire system is a newly developed anti-drone technology that can reach out farther than a machine gun, but is portable enough to be driven quickly into the path of incoming drones.
After a drone swarm attack on Kyiv on Monday, Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, appealed to Israel for air defense weapons. The plea was rebuffed by Israel’s minister of defense, Benny Gantz, largely because Israel depends on Russian cooperation for the Israeli Air Force to conduct raids in Syria. Israel, he said, would provide early warning systems, but not air defense weapons.
Mr. Sak, the adviser to the Ukrainian defense minister, said Israel could be missing an opportunity to hone its tactics in facing down threats in its own territory by assisting in the counter-drone efforts now underway in Ukraine. “These Iranian drones that are hitting Ukrainian cities were not developed, not meant for Ukraine,” Mr. Sak said. “They were developed as a
mass capability to strike Israel. They are using Ukraine as a testing ground, to see weaknesses, to perfect them, and sooner or later they will use them against Israel.”
A Ukrainian official, speaking off the record, has said Israel has provided intelligence useful for targeting the Iranian drones.
The drones, when in flight, also have a distinctive buzz from their small engines, which has proved a vulnerability.
In Kyiv, three policemen shot down one drone with their Kalashnikov rifles after hearing the buzz, described by witnesses as sounding like a chain-saw engine, and then seeing the triangular weapon fly toward them over rooftops. “There was very little time to make a decision,” said Sgt. Oleksandr Kravchuk, who is a shooting instructor with the police department.
He said he fired all 30 rounds in his magazine, trying to aim in front of the craft to account for its speed in flight. The drone veered off course and crashed, blowing up about 75 yards from where he was standing, Sergeant Kravchuk said in an interview. “We heard it, we saw it, then we opened fire,” he said.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv and Vinnytsia, Ukraine.
Andrew E. Kramer is a reporter covering the countries of the former Soviet Union. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT