‘Huge problem’: Iranian drones pose new threat to Ukraine

Over the past week, Russia has been deploying Shahed and Mohajer combat drones imported from Iran in greater numbers across Ukraine, with devastating results. Some hit combat positions, destroying tanks and armored vehicles, while others hit civilian infrastructure, including in the port city of Odessa.

In his late night address Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country’s anti-aircraft forces shot down more than a dozen drones in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region and Odessa. The Ukrainian Air Force has identified them as Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and Mohajer-6 drones which carry ammunition and can also be used for reconnaissance.

But in interviews, a Ukrainian activist and three soldiers said Iranian drones posed a major threat to fighters and civilians. Their arrival on the battlefield makes it even more urgent for the West to send additional modern weapons, as Kyiv attempts to seize recent gains to retake as much territory as possible before winter sets in. they said.

Iranian drones appear to be a game-changer for the Russians. They are relatively small and fly at low altitude, escaping Ukrainian radars. Arekhta said she could shoot them down with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, but only during the day because the weapons supplied by the United States are not equipped with a night vision system.

Ukraine needs modern air defenses, such as the counter-rocket, artillery and mortar systems used by the United States in Afghanistan, and 360-degree radar to counter the new threat, said the group of visitors.

« I have to be in position against the Russian helicopters on one side and the Iranian drones came from another side, » Arekhta said. « It’s very difficult to close off the huge area with Stingers, with other weapons that can hit those drones. »

Arekhta uses Switchblade 300 drones supplied by Washington, but they are essentially commercial systems that are not powerful enough to work against armored vehicles and artillery, she said. Ukraine needs the upgraded Switchblade 600 drones, a trailing munition it described as « a flying javelin ».

Washington has a contract with manufacturer AeroVironment to ship the 600 version, but they probably won’t arrive for several months.

Ukrainian forces are now fighting the Russians on two fronts: advancing east of the Oskil River into the disputed Donbass region, and south of Kherson. After an initial breakthrough earlier this month in which Kyiv recaptured much of the Russian-occupied Kharkiv region, gains have slowed significantly. Ukrainian soldiers are now pushing into entrenched Donbass, where the two sides have been essentially at an impasse since 2014.

In Donetsk Oblast, the battle is now more difficult because Russian forces are fighting from trenches and dugouts built years ago, said Ivanna Chobaniuk, a doctor who served near Kharkiv before traveling to Washington last week.

In the northeast, Ukrainian soldiers are trying to retake ground using Toyotas and other civilian cars – which are particularly vulnerable to drone attacks – because their old armored vehicles have been destroyed, Chobaniuk said.

The old Soviet-era tanks that Kyiv operates have myriad problems, Arekhta said. Soldiers frequently receive error messages when using the aiming system and there is no fire protection system, forcing them to use a small fire extinguisher outside the tank if they are affected. The tanks do not connect to radios provided by Western soldiers, so Arekhta has to use his cell phone to communicate. In winter, « Soviet tanks don’t work at all, » she said.

Kyiv needs modern tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees to help Ukrainian forces advance against heavy Russian artillery, the soldiers said.

« Now is where we have momentum, » said Daria Kaleniuk, head of Ukraine’s nonprofit Anti-Corruption Action Center. « We keep counterattacking and counterattacking in Toyotas, in civilian cars – it’s very inconvenient, especially if Iranian drones are flying overhead. »

Kyiv is trying to regain as much ground as possible before winter sets in, the soldiers said. But now they have a new problem: in response to their counter-offensive, Vladimir Putin has mobilized 300,000 reservists to fight in Ukraine.

Although there are questions about the quality of the soldiers Putin has called up, Russia will use the colder months, when fighting generally slows down, to train and equip them, Ukrainian soldiers said.

« If we give them that time, in the spring there will be an epic battle – another epic battle, » said Daria Zubenko, a senior sergeant who served as a paramedic and sniper.

Ukraine could use the winter to train its forces on more advanced weapons that the West has yet to approve – for example, modern battle tanks and warplanes, Kaleniuk said. Ukraine’s armed forces submitted a formal request letter two weeks ago asking for used or new fighter jets, and its air force has identified a few dozen pilots who speak English and are ready to begin training immediately. , she said.

But modern tanks and jets may be little more than a pipe dream, at least for now. Although Pentagon officials have left the door open for the US-made F-16 fighter jet to be sent to Kyiv, senior generals have said the planes wouldn’t happen for years after any political decision has been made to give them away.

« I’m really sick of losing my friends, » Arekhta said. « Sometimes I just say ‘happy birthday’ on social media, on Facebook, and the response is ‘he’s dead.’ ”


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