Changing aerial warfare: Drone swarms overwhelm missile defences in Ukraine

Drones when compared to missiles are small, sluggish, inexpensive and simple to shoot down and when they arrive in swarms—might pose the greater threat.

Changing aerial warfare: Drone swarms overwhelm missile defences in Ukraine
The kamikaze drones are under the umbrella of a group of weapons known as loitering munitions. (Image Courtesy: Reuters)

Ukraine has been subjected to kamikaze drone assaults from Russia for several weeks running. Iron suicide birds’ devastating capacity kills military targets and civilians and devastates the homes and infrastructure of Ukrainian cities. Russia also attacks Ukraine with missiles.

Both are categories of aircraft that fly toward a target and detonate there, but they present various dangers.

Missile costs hundreds or millions of dollars, flies quickly, is challenging to shoot down, and is loaded with a significant amount of explosives. However, for the time being, drones—small, sluggish, inexpensive, and simple to shoot down but so common that they arrive in swarms—might pose the greater threat.


On October 10, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled his new policy with the largest airstrikes since the beginning of the war. Russia fired more than 80 cruise missiles at targets throughout Ukraine,  and it may have utilized ammunition worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a single day.

Based on the information available in the public, Russian Kalibr missiles have a range of up to 2,000 km, can travel at speeds up to several times the speed of sound, and can carry warheads weighing more than 400 kg, including perhaps nuclear bombs.

The Russian missiles Kh-22, Kha-31, Iskander, Onyx, and others move quickly and are far more difficult to strike. They are meant to be used against well-defended, expensive military targets, like enemy warships or command centers. They need to be shot down using sophisticated air defences, which are better adapted to covering a small region than specific, crucial targets.

According to Kyiv, more than half of the missiles fired by Russia in recent weeks have been intercepted. However, during the massive opening salvo on October 10, power was cut off to large portions of Ukraine, and reports indicate that lives were lost.  Moscow’s stockpile of missiles is finite, making sustained attacks on this scale unsustainable, even though Western analysts are unsure of the precise number Moscow still possesses.

Additional cutting-edge missile defence systems, including the US NASAMS system, which is scheduled to be deployed in the upcoming months and is reportedly being expedited by Washington, have been promised by Western nations.  Recently, Germany delivered to Ukraine the first of its four IRIS-T air defence systems.

What are Kamikaze drones?

This low-cost, straightforward weapon must fly to a predetermined location, locate a target, dive towards it, and explode a warhead upon contact with the target or as it approaches. These drones are under the umbrella of a group of weapons known as loitering munitions. They are made for lingering over the battlefield for extended periods of time while searching for radar-type targets. When they locate a target, they dash to it.

Some radars do not detect these lingering weapons, while others misidentify them as “birds” due to their small size, low speed, and low altitude.

Several drones can fly together. This seems to be a single mark on the radar, making it impossible to comprehend that there are actually five of them. Unfortunately, because the targets are intricate and small, it is hard to fire down every single one of them.

Iranian Shahed-136 drones

Two drones which have hit the Ukrainian targets are the Russian Lancet 3 drones and the alleged Iranian Shahed-136 drones, which are called the Geran-2 in Russia. Despite the nickname “flying moped”, Shahed-136 drones pose a serious danger to Ukrainians. Radars that can detect low-flying drones do exist. But there are few of them in the Ukrainian army. It is rather problematic to quickly establish the production of air defence systems in a war. Therefore, the way out is to purchase suitable equipment from Germany, France and the USA.

Regulating drones

The Missile Technology Control Regime ((MTCR) governs missiles with a range of more than 300 km and warheads weighing 500 kg. Although the suicide drones behave similarly to cruise missiles, Iran is not bound by the treaty because it has not ratified it.

The EU has sanctioned Iranian individuals and a company for supplying drones to Russia instead of the nation itself. The United States has tried to get the United Nations to probe the issue.

Advantages of drones and cruise missiles

To reach their targets, drones and cruise missiles can fly close to the ground while hugging the terrain. As a result, drones and cruise missiles can essentially “hide” in the topography, making it challenging for adversarial ground-based radars to find them. A flight at a low altitude can conceal an attacker’s approach.

Due to their reduced radar cross-section, these weapons systems, which are frequently smaller in size than bigger conventional aircraft or ballistic missiles, are more difficult to detect by radar systems. You can’t fire something down if you can’t see it.

The threat can come from any direction because cruise missiles and armed drones are frequently movable. “In fact, cruise missiles can be fired from the air, ships, submerged submarines, and ground. You will only detect the attack coming if the radar is positioned in the right spot at the appropriate time,” explained an expert who wished to remain anonymous.

However, there are drawbacks to both cruise missiles and armed drones. Both are not unbeatable; and due to their shorter range and slower speeds, armed drones and cruise missiles may be less effective and more vulnerable.

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First published on: 17-11-2022 at 16:14 IST
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