Why drones pose a different challenge for Ukraine than missiles

Missiles fly fast, are difficult to launch, and carry a huge explosive payload. But for now, the bigger threat may be drones — small, slow, cheap, and easy to shoot down, but so numerous that they swarm.

LONDON, United Kingdom — Since President Vladimir Putin changed tactics last week to conduct air strikes on infrastructure targets across Ukraine, Moscow has increased its use of two main weapons: long-range cruise missiles and so-called “suicide drones.”

Both types of aircraft fly to a destination and explode when they get there, but they pose different threats.

Missiles, costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars each, fly fast, are difficult to launch, and carry huge explosive payloads. But for now, the bigger threat may be drones — small, slow, cheap, and easy to shoot down, but so numerous that they swarm.

Here are some of the differences.


Russia may have deployed hundreds of millions of dollars worth of ammunition in a single day on Oct. 10, when Putin signaled his new tactic of launching the largest airstrikes since the war began, firing more than 80 cruise missiles at targets across Ukraine.

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It is believed that Russia’s Kalibr missiles can fly up to 2,000 km, hit their targets at several times the speed of sound, and carry warheads weighing more than 400 kg, possibly including nuclear weapons.

They are designed to destroy well-protected, high-value military targets such as enemy warships or command centers. Shooting them down requires sophisticated air defenses that are best suited to defending specific, key targets rather than protecting a wide area.

Kyiv claims to have shot down more than half of the missiles launched by Russia in the past few weeks. But in the first major salvo on October 10, Russia killed at least 19 people and knocked out power to much of Ukraine.

Although Western analysts don’t know exactly how many missiles Moscow has left, their supply is limited, making further strikes on such a large scale unsustainable.

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Western countries have promised additional advanced missile defense systems, such as the US NASAMS system, to be delivered in the coming months, which Washington says is now accelerating. Germany sent the first of four IRIS-T air defense systems to Ukraine last week.


Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones can be used for surveillance or as a platform to launch munitions at the ground. But the easiest way to use a drone as a weapon is to fly it directly at a target and blow it up.

So-called “kamikaze drones” like the Iranian Shahed can individually cost as little as a small car. Russia has already used hundreds of them against Ukraine in recent weeks and is believed to have acquired as many as 2,000 from Iran.

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Each drone flies slow enough to be shot out of the sky with a well-aimed rifle and carries only a small explosive payload, equivalent to an artillery shell. But they can travel hundreds of kilometers.

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Kyiv claims to have shot down the vast majority of them – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday October 19 Ukraine shot down as many as 233 Shahed drones in the past month.

But because of their low cost, they can be sent in swarms, making it difficult to prevent one or two from getting through, killing civilians in residential buildings, or damaging scattered targets like substations.

The advanced air defenses used to protect high-value targets from missiles aren’t ideally suited to stopping cheap drones – a whole swarm of drones can cost less than a surface-to-air missile used to take out just one of them.

Instead, specialized anti-drone defense systems use sensors that can “hear” them and shoot them off the ground, with artificial intelligence software to detect and track them.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said this week that the Western alliance would deploy anti-drone systems to Ukraine in the coming days, but gave no details. – Rappler.com


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