The war in Ukraine has an ominous new noise. People living in Afghanistan and Nagorno-Karabakh have talked about a sound that makes them run for cover. It’s not an explosion or a jet screaming overhead, it’s the menacing whirr of a drone. And on Monday, that whirr arrived in the skies above Kyiv.
Russia has ramped up its use of Iranian-made “suicide drones” in Ukraine, which travel in groups and explode by diving at their targets, obliterating themselves in the process. On Monday, dozens of drones attacked Ukrainian cities during morning rush hour, killing at least four people when they struck an apartment building in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
Drone and missile attacks have also destroyed 30 per cent of the country’s energy infrastructure in the past 10 days, according to Ukrainian officials. Swathes of the country are now without power.
Armed drones have been involved in the fighting in Ukraine for months. Until now, both sides have mostly limited their use to the front lines, although Russia used Iranian drones to bombard the port of Odessa and military targets in the city centre.
But this week’s attacks by Russia mark the beginning of a dark new era for drone warfare in Ukraine. For the first time, drones are being used to target civilians and civilian infrastructure in a way that analysts say gives Russia little strategic advantage on the battleground. Instead, these attacks are designed to spread terror and crush morale, what German chancellor Olaf Scholz described as a Russian “scorched earth” tactic.
“[Russia’s] main goal … is to make sure that Ukrainians will have an extremely hard, dark and cold winter,” says Kira Rudik, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, who is using a generator to power her laptop due to power restrictions in Kyiv. She compares the sound of the drones over the city to a loud motorbike.
“It’s pretty scary when you’re sitting at home early in the morning and you hear [the sound of] a motorcycle passing by very loud,” she says. “And then you hear an explosion.”
Part of the psychological impact of these drones can be linked to that noise. Compared to missiles, drones are slow. The Iranian-made Shahed-136s travel at around 200 kilometres per hour, meaning civilians can see, hear and even try to shoot at them before they hit, creating time for dread and panic to build.
“This will likely have a significant psychological effect on Ukraine’s civilian population, because everything could become a potential target of Russian attack,” says Ingvild Bode, associate professor at the Centre for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.
Ukrainians are bracing for the possibility that a lot more of these drones will be heading their way. “We know that [Russia] has purchased over 1,000 drones from Iran,” says Rudik. The Shahed-136 is comparatively cheap and expendable, costing $20,000 to $30,000, analysts estimate.
“We know that there will be more and more and more, and that is of course terrifying.” Iran has denied providing Russia with drones to use in Ukraine – a denial the US has called a lie. The White House said on Friday it had evidence Iranian troops were on the ground in Crimea, helping Russia to operate the drones.
While Ukraine has already had some success in intercepting these drones, the country is still scrambling to respond to Russia’s new strategy. The military was able to shoot down 15 of 20 Iranian drones launched yesterday, according to a Facebook post by the General Staff of the Armed Forces.
But shooting them down is easier said than done. A Shahed-136 is hard to detect. These drones fly low, meaning radar systems struggle to see them. “Unfortunately, it is not possible to hit 100 percent [of them] because the target is difficult,” Ukraine’s air force spokesperson, Yuriy Ihnat, says.
To compensate, Ukraine has started crowdsourcing ways to detect drones early. The country’s armed forces launched an Android app called ePPO, which asks civilians to report sightings of cruise missiles or drones, and share what direction they are travelling.
Once Ukrainians can detect the drones, they still need to figure out the best way to target them. Electronic warfare tools, such as GPS jammers, don’t work well, because analysts believe the Shahed-136s are programmed with their target’s location before they take off.
The ideal way to shoot them down would be with long-range missiles, says Marcel Plichta, a former US Department of Defence analyst who is now a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “But these are many, many times more expensive than the drone itself, which in terms of sustainability is an issue.”
Shorter-range air defences are cheaper, he says. “But they also have a lot less range, so you’re risking not being able to shoot them all down before they reach their targets.”
And if Ukraine focuses all its defences on Shahed-136s, there’s a risk the drones could act as a decoy for other attacks. The conflict in Yemen between the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels has shown that missiles are more likely to hit their targets if air defence systems are distracted with drones, says Plichta.
The best option would be to stop or sabotage the drones before they ever take off, says Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader in humanitarian disarmament at PAX, a Dutch organization that campaigns to end armed violence.
On Friday, the European Union announced it would freeze the assets of three Iranian generals and Shahed Aviation Industries, the company responsible for developing the Shahed-136.
Sabotaging the drones themselves, however, is made more difficult by the fact a Shahed-136 is estimated to have a 1,000-kilometre range, which means these drones have been launched by Russia from Belarus and Russian-occupied Crimea, according to Rudik.
Ukraine’s drone problem is one reason the country has been reaching out to Israel, Zwijnenburg says. “Israel has a lot of knowledge on the type of drones Iran produces.” However, Israel, which has previously limited its assistance to Ukraine to humanitarian relief, said this week it would only help the country develop an early-warning system to better protect civilians from air attacks.
“We need air force protection systems, the sophisticated ones,” says Rudik, adding it’s not just Israel who has these systems but also the US, the UK and some European countries.
“This is something that we have been asking since day one of the invasion. And it’s an incredible frustration for us that right now, eight months into the war, we are still asking for the same thing.”
- A Wired report