Ukrainian military’s Strategic Communications Directorate via AP
- Russia’s Iranian-made drones cost as little as $20,000, but can cost much more to shoot down.
- This disparity, and the supply of air defense missiles, is a growing concern for military experts.
- Ukraine launched multiple costly missiles over New Year to deal with Russia’s drones, NYT reported.
The cost of shooting down Iranian-made drones over Ukraine can far outweigh the price of manufacturing them, offering Russia a potential advantage in its invasion of the country, The New York Times reported.
While the Shahed-136 drones being deployed by Russia cost as little as $20,000 to make, shooting one out of the sky can cost between $140,000-$500,000, the paper reported.
This has created a growing problem for Ukraine and its allies.
President Vladimir Putin’s forces have increasingly relied on the Shahed-136, referred to as a “suicide drone” because it self-destructs on contact with its target.
As Ukraine rang in the New Year, it faced a barrage of 84 of these drones, with its air force claiming to have shot down every last one.
But as remarkable an achievement as that may be, it’s likely to be difficult to sustain given the cost.
Ukraine has used a wide range of methods in efforts to stop the drones, including bringing old Soviet-era anti-aircraft guns back into play, as Insider reported.
Small arms fire and missiles fired from warplanes have also been deployed.
However, the Shahed-136 flies “low and slow … literally trying to fly under the radar,” Dr James Rogers, an associate professor in war studies at SDU, who has advised the UN on drones, told Insider in December.
Launched in waves of six or seven at a time, the drones aim to act as a rudimentary swarm to overwhelm defenses.
During the New Year onslaught, Ukrainian officials said they deployed a more costly option to counter them, several times firing missiles from NASAMS, or National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, per the Times.
NASAMS is a short- to mid-range air defense system sent to Ukraine by the US in November. Firing it, the Times reported, costs $500,000.
However, Mathieu Boulegue, a Russia expert at London’s Chatham House, told the newspaper that the cost is “irrelevant as long as the West keeps providing military assistance to Ukraine.”
In December, the US announced it would send its most advanced missile defense system, the Patriot, to Ukraine.
But officials have warned that this is no silver bullet — precisely because of the cost difference between launching a cheap Iranian drone and defending against it with a top-of-the-line Patriot missile.
Mark Cancian and Tom Karako, military experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — pricing the Shahed drone at around $50,000 rather than $20,000 — wrote about the issue in December: “High-value Russian aircraft and ballistic missiles would be appropriate targets.
“Shooting $4 million missiles at $250,000 Russian cruise missiles might be justified if those missiles would hit sensitive targets. Shooting a $4 million missile at a $50,000 Iranian Shahed-136 drone would probably not,” they said.