Espreso. Global

How can Ukraine bolster its air defense in face of Russia’s increasing drone terror

20 November, 2023 Monday

Shahed-131/136 drones are increasingly overshadowing missile components and emerging as the primary tool of terror employed by invading Russian forces. Although Ukraine currently employs effective destruction methods and countermeasures, they are proving insufficient

Oleksandr Kovalenko, Ukrainian journalist and military observer, analyzed potential interception measures that can help Ukraine reinforce its air defense in an article for Obozrevatel.

November 19 night attack

During the night of Sunday, November 19, multiple groups of Shahed-131/136 infiltrated Ukrainian airspace. The “hunt” for Shahed-131/136 continued for several hours as they altered their flight paths, evaded high-risk zones equipped with air defense systems, and traversed challenging terrain inaccessible to mobile interception teams.

The outcome saw the downing of 15 out of the 20 Shahed-131/136s that night, concluding the interception operation after a five-hour effort.

“These results prompt considerations not so much about the inadequacy of conventional interception methods but rather their insufficient quantity in the current scenario,” the observer suggests.

Conventional interception methods

Currently, two primary methods are employed for Shahed-131/136 interception: air defense systems and mobile teams. Ukraine's layered air defense system effectively intercepts these small and slow targets using both cannon and missile components.

Prominent cannon-based interceptors include the Gepard, alongside Soviet variants like the ZSU-23-4 Shilka and the 2K22 Tunguska. Anti-aircraft missile interceptors such as Crotalе, Alvis Stormer, Strela-10, Osa, and others are also utilized.

However, all these methods share a common limitation—an inherent, restricted radius of airspace coverage and a lack of comprehensive control.

Shahed-131/136 flight routes can be strategically planned to navigate over areas without entering the kill zone of any air defense assets.

Supplementing non-mobile air defense assets are mobile interception teams capable of actively pursuing “kamikaze” drones, proving highly effective. Nevertheless, Russian forces have adjusted Shahed flight paths to include challenging terrain like forests, swamps, and riverbeds, making it increasingly difficult for mobile teams to intercept “kamikaze” drones.

Beyond the aforementioned traditional interception means, MiG-29 fighter jets are occasionally deployed to intercept drones and subsonic cruise missiles. However, this is infrequent and does not guarantee a hundred percent success. Moreover, the destruction of a Shahed-131/136 can pose risks to the supersonic fighter and its pilot.

Unconventional interception methods

By non-traditional interception methods, the author refers to equipment not currently in Ukraine's service but could be swiftly deployed with appropriate decisions. These models are agile enough to intercept airborne targets attempting to elude conventional countermeasures.

According to the observer, one particularly effective option is the EMB 314 Super Tucano/A-29. Adopted into service in 2003, this light attack aircraft boasts a cruising speed of 530 km/h and a maximum speed of 590 km/h, making it adept at intercepting and catching up with swarms of drones.

The Super Tucano features a practical flight ceiling of 10,600 meters, a range of 1,330 km, and a payload of nearly 1,600 kg. Armed with a 12.7mm FN Herstal M3 machine gun twin with 200 rounds of ammunition, it can carry a variety of weapons, including AGM-65 Maverick missiles, AIM-9 Sidewinder, MAA-1 Piranha, or Python ¾ air-to-air missiles, and a 20mm automatic cannon—making it highly suitable for countering Shahed-131/136.

The versatility of the EMB 314 Super Tucano/A-29, with its customizable configurations, comes at a price ranging from $9 million to $18 million, proving its effectiveness during combat operations. 

In considering alternative options, helicopters also play a role. While heavy attack helicopters may be challenging to obtain, lighter counterparts available in ample quantity from partner nations, such as the AH-1W Super Cobra/AH-1Z Viper, can be effective interceptors. These helicopters, with a cruising speed of 280 km/h and a maximum speed of 350 km/h, are armed with a 20-mm automatic cannon and air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9 Sidewinder.

Of particular interest is the fact that these helicopters deploy 127 mm Zuni guided missiles, providing enhanced interception capabilities. By strategically deploying such helicopters in areas prone to kamikaze drone activity, a more extensive and versatile intercept buffer can be created compared to fixed air defenses or ground mobile teams.

Notably, surplus military property auctions, such as those regularly conducted by the U.S. Army, offer opportunities to acquire helicopters like the Bell AH-1W SuperCobra. Recent auctions have seen such helicopters sold to Bahrain at a cost of $14.5 million per unit.

The urgency to strengthen Ukraine’s air defenses demands a realistic assessment of available options. Light aircraft and helicopters, while not the only solutions, serve as examples of what can effectively safeguard Ukrainian skies and citizens from the escalating threat posed by Shahed-131/136. Decisive actions need to be taken promptly to address these challenges. Time is of the essence, and the window of opportunity must not be missed, the observer strasses.

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