Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Police officers shoot at a drone during a Russian drone strike, which local authorities consider to be Iranian-made Shahed-136 unmanned aerial vehicles, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 17.STRINGER/Reuters

Waves of drones carrying explosives struck Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on Monday. On Tuesday, Russia continued its attacks, firing missiles at energy and water infrastructure and the damage and death toll grows.

Ukrainian officials are urging allies to send more air defence systems to protect against these attacks, and many Western countries have promised to deliver them. To understand more about the drone attacks and what can protect Ukraine from them, The Decibel spoke with Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn, a senior fellow and director of the defence program at the Center for a New American Security.

The following is an excerpt from the episode with Dr. Pettyjohn.

Could you give me a sense of what it would be like being attacked by one of these drones?

Some people call them kamikaze drones. They really are missiles that then hone in or are guided to a target and can attack it. And they’re really sort of an interesting system because they’re not particularly sophisticated. They have a very loud motor so people can notice that they are above, which is probably quite terrifying and frightening, but they also have significant endurance. They can fly a long time – something like 2,500 kilometres – which means they can fly from a very long distance and slowly find their target and then strike it.

What kind of drones exactly are we talking about?

These are not quadcopter, commercially manufactured drones. These are military weapons that Iran has built. They call them the Shahed 136. Russia has rebranded them as Geran-2. It has an 80-pound explosive on it. When you look at some of the quadcopters or smaller drones that are fairly ubiquitous in the Ukraine war, those sometimes are armed, but they’ll be carrying a small charge or like a grenade, something that’s very tiny, not an 80-pound explosive that can do a reasonable amount of damage.

So how would you defend against these drones once they’re flying over a city?

Ideally, you’d like to have a layered system of air defences, and Ukraine does. And this has been partially why they’ve been able to be so successful in the war, because they have used their air defence system quite astutely and prevented the Russian air force from flying with impunity over Ukrainian skies. But the drones are different because they are really slow and they don’t produce a significant heat signature, so they end up sometimes posing a bit of a challenge to any one particular defensive system.

And when we say shooting them down, what exactly are we talking about here? Because there were some videos out of Ukraine recently where people were literally shooting rifles and guns at these drones to try to stop them. Is that effective?

It’s not the most effective defensive strategy. And in fact, it’s somewhat dangerous because the bullets are going to fall down. More effective options are guns, but there are radar guided guns, anti-aircraft guns that are specifically designed for this. You could also use missiles, but the missiles are more expensive. If you’re firing a million-dollar missile to shoot down a $20,000 drone, that is not the exact sort of cost exchange you’d like to have.

Ukraine has been asking for help with air attacks since the start of the war. Now it seems that Ukraine is really asking the world for something called air defence systems. What exactly does that term mean?

So an air defence system can be anything that allows you to destroy a threat in the air. Aircraft are actually air defence systems that fly. But what they’re talking about here are ground-based air defences.

Ukraine has its own air defences, which are older Soviet-made systems that have proven to be quite valuable but have less sophisticated radars, less sophisticated missiles in terms of being able to hone in on the target and then hit it. So they’re less accurate. And what Ukraine has been asking for is a range of ground-based air defence systems, from the shoulder-fired manned portable systems like the Stinger missile, to much larger systems that can defend a larger area. And they have been seeking sort of the full gamut. They want to have a layered defensive system with multiple different types and opportunities to intercept either incoming cruise missiles, aircraft or drones.

Allies from all over, Germany, France, Britain, the U.S., have been promising to help supply Ukraine with weapons and some of these systems. It seems like you’re kind of cobbling together a bit of a defence system here. Is that less effective than having one standard thing that would roll out across the country?

Yes, it’s much less effective and efficient to sort of cobble together all these different systems for the pure reason of sustainment and logistics. So you can’t have the same spare parts everywhere or the same munitions or missiles to arm these air defences.

How do these systems work in terms of defending against the drone strikes?

It depends on the particular drone and the particular system, but many of them are effective.

And what about missiles?

They’re not perfect and they’re limited in the geographic area that they can cover. If you believe what the Ukrainian government has been saying, they’ve shot down a significant number of the cruise missiles that Russia fired in the last week. But there are always going to be what we call leakers, the ones that slip through. So if Russia were to fire a really large salvo of missiles or drones, they could overwhelm any one of these single systems. And some of the attackers would get through. But the other thing is they only cover a certain footprint in terms of how much area they can defend against. So you would need hundreds of these to cover the entire front lines where Ukrainian forces are fighting the Russians, let alone in the cities.

So what you’re saying is that they couldn’t really cover the entire country of Ukraine?

No, definitely not. Ukraine is huge. So you’re going to have to selectively pick and choose where you want to defend.

So from your perspective, how would you describe what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is trying to accomplish with what it is and what it isn’t supplying Ukraine?

It’s been astonishing to see how much the alliance and all the individual member countries have rallied together and are providing Ukraine with weapons. At this point, the United States is providing it seems like $4- to $8-billion a month of military supplies to the Ukrainians, which is just a tremendous amount. And you’ve seen that support across the alliance. But they are trying to balance a couple of competing factors.

They want to provide Ukraine with capabilities that they can use effectively right now to win. But they are also trying not to provoke Russia, which could expand the conflict by attacking NATO’s territory or otherwise escalate vertically, potentially using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, which we’ve heard a lot about. And then they are also trying to balance their own country’s needs and requirements because they are giving up capabilities that their forces might need for their defence to provide them to Ukraine. And a lot of these weapons, even the missiles and the bullets, take a long time to manufacture. And we can’t just really quickly ramp up production.

If a nuclear weapon is used, would any of these air defence systems do anything to stop it?

Depends what the delivery system is. If it were a ballistic missile, even a short-range one, right now, the Ukrainians don’t have air defences that could stop that. And even if they could stop a short-range ballistic missile, Russia has many medium and then very long-range systems that it wouldn’t be able to intercept.

We started talking about those drone strikes. We’ve moved on to this prospect of nuclear escalation. What do you think all of this says about Russia’s capabilities at the moment, and where the war could be going?

I think Russia is fairly desperate right now. Putin has sort of boxed himself in by annexing these territories that he doesn’t actually control and can’t defend and maintain a hold of. So they’ve also proven to be not particularly good at firing long-range missiles, or they miss what they’re trying to get at, or they’re not as precise as many defence analysts actually feared, or they’re not as capable of actually calculating the target and hitting the co-ordinates that they want to. So they’ve expended a bunch of these better missiles that they have and more sophisticated long-range systems, which has led them to buying the cheaper Iranian drones. They also have sought to purchase some short-range ballistic missiles from Iran to supplement their stockpiles, which are dwindling. So it is not a good outlook right now for Russia, but that is in some ways exactly what is frightening about the entire situation because it makes the risks somewhat higher.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe