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Ukrainians with cellphones and machine guns are forcing Russia to change how it launches its drone attacks

Ukraine national guard soldiers troops anti-aircraftAnti-aircraft gunners with an air-defense unit of Ukraine’s National Guard on a combat mission in August.

Vyacheslav Madiyevskyi/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

  • Ukraine’s flexible and adaptive air defenses have forced Russia to change its drone tactics.
  • Most recently, Russia has used large salvos of carefully routed drones to avoid Ukrainian defenses.
  • The dynamic is an example of Ukrainian effectiveness and Russian ability to learn, one expert said.

Ukraine’s flexible and adaptive air defenses have forced Russia to change its drone tactics.

Instead of launching a few Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones at a time, Russia is sending large salvos and carefully routing them to avoid Ukrainian defenses.

Ukrainian interception rates have gotten “good enough that the Russians are now kind of saving up their Iranian production allocations until they have large amounts,” Justin Bronk, an airpower expert at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said on an April episode of the Geopolitics Decanted podcast.

Now Russia is launching “maybe 30 or 40” at a time, Bronk said.

Ukraine troops anti-aircraft machine gunUkrainian troops with a homemade anti-aircraft machine gun to destroy drones in Mykolaiv on November 9, 2022.

STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This marks yet another turn in the drone war between Russia and Ukraine. In the days after Russia invaded in February 2022, Ukrainian drones armed with anti-tank missiles or even homemade bombs wreaked havoc on Russian armored columns.

Then in late summer 2022, just as Ukraine seemed able to keep Russian airpower at bay, Moscow began pounding Ukrainian infrastructure with waves of cheap Shahed drones that overwhelmed Ukrainian air defenses.

“Drip-feeding lots and lots of Shaheds for several months” also depleted Ukraine’s stockpile of air-defense missiles and shells, Bronk said.

In turn, Ukraine has formed mobile air-defense teams equipped with a variety of short-range and portable weapons, including self-propelled anti-aircraft guns like the Soviet-era Shilka and the German-made Gepard, shoulder-fired missiles like the US-made Stinger, and even Soviet-designed DShK heavy machine guns paired with searchlights, Bronk said.

Ukraine soldier MANPADS shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missileA Ukrainian soldier with a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile in Donetsk in May 2022.

Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This approach has proven remarkably successful. “Even just people with DShKs are getting much better with those weapons because they’ve had a lot of practice,” Bronk said. “As you learn how to lead targets, even crew-served, non-radar-led gunnery can be quite effective.”

Ukraine has also mobilized the public for the anti-drone war. “They’ve got some clever apps so where ordinary people can essentially quickly report in sightings of UAVs, missiles, and aircraft into a sort of centralized data-gathering function,” Bronk said.

Earlier in the war, Ukrainians used a repurposed government-services app to report Russian movements on the ground.

A similar system was used in World War II. During the Battle of Britain in 1940, civilian volunteers with the Royal Observer Corps reported sightings of German bombers to a centralized air-defense network. Once the bombers flew past coastal radars and reached inland areas where radar coverage was sparser, ground controllers could use Observer Corps reports to track the raids and direct RAF fighters to intercept them.

Ukrainian troops fire a S60 anti-aircraft gun in BakhmutUkrainian troops fire a S60 anti-aircraft gun at Russian positions near Bakhmut in March.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

Because Ukraine is so large — just a little smaller Texas — Russian drones have to fly a long way to strike targets deep inside the country, Bronk noted. While the Shahed-136 has an estimated range of about 1,550 miles, it only has a top speed of about 115 mph.

“They’re quite slow,” Bronk said. “If you can build up a picture of where they’re going — which is not easy — there is often time to station mobile teams, to move them to the likely routes and shoot the drones down.”

Naturally, Russia has changed its tactics. It has begun sending a few drones ahead of the main attack wave to attract the attention of Ukrainian anti-aircraft sites “and see what lights up,” Bronk said. “If they manage to work out where the air defense is in a particular area, they’ll then change the routing of the main strike wave to try and avoid it. So that’s both an example of Russia learning and adapting but also a testament to how effective Ukrainian defense measures now are.”

However, Ukraine’s mobile anti-drone teams are most effective against drones flying at lower altitudes on deep-penetration missions.

On the frontlines, Russia can employ a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, ranging from small quadcopters to the Orlan-10, which flies at altitudes between roughly 5,000 feet and 16,000 feet and gathers real-time data to guide Russian artillery.

Ukraine troops anti-aircraft machine gunsUkrainian troops at a handover ceremony for 10 donated vehicles with machine guns for mobile anti-aircraft groups in Kyiv in April.

STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“The Orlan is one of the biggest problems because it can fly above the range of” portable air-defense missiles and anti-aircraft guns, Bronk said. “Essentially what that means is that in order to shoot them down, Ukraine has to use radar-guided surface-to-air missile systems like the Osa or Buk. That’s one of the things that’s drawing so much of their ammunition capacity.”

Recently leaked US governments containing intelligence assessments from February warned that Ukraine is running out of ammunition for its anti-aircraft weapons, especially the surface-to-air missiles needed to counter Russian jets.

While Western countries have scrambled to provide more of that ammunition, dwindling supplies mean Ukraine will have to use its air-defense resources more judiciously — and as they have done since the war began, the Ukrainians will continue to improvise.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider