Russia is turning to Iran for more rockets and drones
Nov 6th 2022 | VINNYTSIA
The Economist, excerpts:
FLYING FIGHTER jets in Ukraine’s air force is punishing work, says Juice. “You have to be ready to go at any time, in any conditions,” says the pilot, who asked to be identified by his call sign. When the alarm sounds, Juice has only a few minutes to grab his equipment, jump into the cockpit, rev up his Mig-29 and take off. Because the Russians often attack at night, he wears his flight suit to bed. The worst part, however, is spending hours in the sky chasing missiles or drones only for each of them to elude you. “Then after landing you open your smartphone, and you see explosions in Kyiv, or explosions in other cities, and you weren’t able to save these lives,” he says. “Or you land on your base and there is no electricity there, because a Russian cruise missile destroyed a power station.”
Over the past month alone, Russian cruise missiles and Iranian-made Shahed-136 loitering munitions, or kamikaze drones, have killed two dozen people and damaged up to 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. But the country is getting much better at knocking them out of the sky. On October 10th, nearly half of the missiles and drones Russia launched against Ukraine dodged the country’s defences; explosions rocked Kyiv for the first time in months. Less than a month later, Ukraine claims to be shooting down over 80% of the drones and missiles heading its way. Of the 55 missiles Russia lobbed at Ukraine on October 31st, the day Juice scrambled, 45 were intercepted, according to Ukraine’s air force.
New weapons from Western allies are one reason. In early October, Ukraine received an advanced IRIS-T system from Germany. Three more are on the way. The one deployed has so far shot down every projectile in its path, the Ukrainians say. An S-300 battery delivered earlier this year from Slovakia has been remarkably effective as well. America says Ukraine is about to get two NASAMS systems, developed by Kongsberg, a Norwegian aerospace company, and Raytheon, an American one; it is trying to speed up delivery of six more. Ukrainian officials coyly suggest the first ones may already be on the ground. “Who knows? Maybe they’re here,” says Denis, an air-defence officer who oversaw NASAMS training for a group of Ukrainian operators in Norway.
Ukrainian officers say they have learned to predict where the drones and missiles are fired from and which routes they may take, and to reshuffle their own defences accordingly. Sometimes the Russians try to confuse the Ukrainians by launching missiles from different locations or programming them to fly in circles, says Yuriy Ignat, an air force spokesperson. “And we are trying to move our air defences to mislead them,” he adds. “This is also an art, to be in the right place at the right time.”
The newly arrived weapons have made an impact, but they are too few, say Ukrainian officials. Soviet-era equipment makes up the bulk of Ukraine’s defences. “We are fighting with weapons of the last millennium against weapons that were produced two years ago,” says Mr Ignat. Ukraine’s radars have trouble tracking cruise missiles. Its Buk-M1 missile launchers are devilishly tough to operate, and require a lot of manpower. “You have all of these old indicators, monitors, hundreds of buttons and screens,” says Mr Ignat. “The risk of human error is high.”
Not so with the new systems. “The first time I sat in the NASAMS command post, it took just a few minutes to understand how the system works,” says Denis, the air-defence officer.
Juice says there is only so much Ukraine can do with old weapons. The country’s ageing warplanes, including Soviet-made MiG-29 and Su-27 fighters, struggle even against the Shahed drones, which have a low radar cross-section and move about as fast as a passenger car. Without modern jets, Ukraine’s air force can be no match for Russia’s air force or its missiles: “We have a lot of highly trained pilots and ground crews, but our hardware is not good enough.” But at least Juice had some good news when he landed after Russia’s Halloween barrage. A ground-based system downed the missile that had eluded him in the sky.
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