A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jan 10, 2023

Defense Contractors Developing Technologies To Help Ukraine Shoot Down Drones

Ukraine and NATO want the counterdrone technologies to be as cheap, effective - and made from commercially available parts - as the Iranian drones themselves. And that goal seems within reach. JL 

Daniella Cheslow reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Ukrainian troops have shot down the majority of the drones fired by Russia using a mix of surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, antiaircraft guns and man-portable air defense systems known as manpads. Several counterdrone technologies are in development. Some strike the drone itself; others detonate near a drone and “explode out like a shotgun blast. ”The Vampire, an acronym for Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment, uses high-definition sensors to track threats—including drones—then intercepts them with laser-guided munitions. The system is designed to fit in the bed of a commercial pickup.

More than three months after Russia started using large numbers of Iranian-made drones against Ukraine, the U.S. is struggling to supply effective systems that can meet the threat, according to Western officials and analysts.  

The Pentagon first said it would provide a counterdrone system called Vampire in August, but only approved the $40 million contract for the weapons in mid-December, according to the company that makes them. The delivery of the first four systems won’t take place until mid-2023, with 10 more arriving by the end of the year.

The Pentagon hasn’t said why it took several months from the initial announcement to issue a contract for the counterdrone technology. The company behind the Vampire said it was just a matter of paperwork. 

“It was just a process to get to the right contract vehicle and the right mechanism in order to get us turned on,” said Luke Savoie, president of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance business at L3Harris Technologies Inc.

The contract underscores the challenging effort among the U.S. and allies to help Kyiv counter the threat posed by the large, slow and cheap Iranian Shahed-136 drone that Russia has deployed to attack Ukrainian cities and electricity infrastructure. It also highlights, however, the difficulty of deploying the systems quickly and in enough numbers to mount an effective defense.

 

“I think Ukraine needs a lot of these systems distributed very widely across the entire depth of the front,” said Sam Bendett, a drone expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research organization in Arlington, Va. “It would need hundreds of these systems around large cities, around large military facilities, around military bases, in main infrastructure facilities and the like.” 

The Vampire, an acronym for Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment, uses high-definition sensors to track threats—including drones—then intercepts them with laser-guided munitions. The system is designed to fit in the bed of a commercial pickup, according to L3Harris.

While Ukrainian forces have had some success shooting down suicide drones or loitering munitions, but no system so far provides comprehensive defense. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky singled out the drones in his December speech to Congress, saying, “Iranian deadly drones, sent to Russia in hundreds, became a threat to our critical infrastructure.”

Russia began deploying Iran’s Shahed-136 en masse in September 2022.  At first, Russia aimed the drones at military positions, before it began to target power plants and civilian buildings. 

Ukrainian troops have shot down the majority of the drones fired by Russia using a mix of surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, antiaircraft guns and man-portable air defense systems known as manpads, according to Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London.

In early January, Ukrainian officials said they shot down drones using NASAMS, a U.S.-provided surface-to-air missile defense system. However, air defense remains a patchwork.

The Shahed, which is made from mostly commercial parts, including from the West, is so noisy it earned the nickname “the flying moped,” said Mr. Bendett, the drone expert. It can be preprogrammed with GPS coordinates to hit a target without communicating with an operator.

“Shahed lowered the threshold to developing and constructing a fairly effective, very cheap and expendable loitering munition,” Mr. Bendett said. “If the cost of attack is going to be less than the cost of defense, then the strain is going to be on the defender.” 

At a counter drone conference last month, Richard Ast, director of unmanned systems technology in the Pentagon’s research and engineering directorate, said his office was looking at industry to help come up with solutions. In particular, he pointed to the threat of autonomous drones fired in large numbers. “The key word is degrade,” Mr. Ast said. “I know I’m not going to be able to defeat them wholeheartedly.

U.S. and NATO officials declined to provide details on what other types of counterdrone systems it is seeking to provide to Ukraine.

Scott Crino, a former military attack helicopter pilot and founder of consulting firm Red Six Solutions LLC, said several counterdrone technologies are in development. Some systems, such as the Vampire, strike the drone itself; others would detonate near a drone and “explode out like a shotgun blast,” he said. 

The U.S. has focused on lasers and high-powered microwaves to target smaller, hobbyist drones rigged with explosives, but neither technology has matured enough to be deployed against the Shahed-136, Mr. Crino said. 

The most promising solution is electronic warfare, which jams radio signals to the aircraft or its satellite-navigation systems. However, Mr. Crino said the Shaheds had been dodging that tactic using an anti-jamming antenna. 

“I think we have made a lot of strides in creating capabilities that are effective against the Shaheds,” Mr. Crino said. “Our ability to get those systems to Ukraine and get them integrated into their defensive structure has been somewhat more limited.”

As the Russian invasion nears its first anniversary, private companies say they are factoring the Iranian drones into their planning. 

Bill Haraka, vice president of defense and security with the Dutch Robin Radar Systems, said his firm was optimizing its sensors to best identify larger drones including the Shahed-136.  “The requests we’re getting from different organizations in Europe is actually to battle that particular threat,” Haraka said.

 

Fortem Technologies, a Utah-based airspace security company, said it was modifying its DroneHunter system, which captures drones in nets, to work against Iranian drones. “We have certainly been made aware of the characteristics of the Shahed-136, and we have made improvements that can capture that type of drone,” CEO Jon Gruen said. 

He added that the Shahed-136 “is currently the biggest threat of an unmanned air system type in the Ukrainian conflict.”

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