The US Defense Department is trying to speed up the delivery of two advanced surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine as Russia has increasingly used Iranian-supplied drones that explode on impact to pummel Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.
The Pentagon’s effort is just the latest evidence of a newly urgent push by the US and its allies to help Ukraine build a comprehensive air and missile defense system to protect itself against these drones, which killed four in an attack on Kyiv on Monday.
The drones have become an increasingly urgent problem for Ukraine, and one that has drawn US condemnation. The State Department on Monday said that the drones are a violation of a UN Security Council resolution which restricts certain arms transfers to or from Iran.
With its reserves of precision munitions believed to be running low, Moscow has turned to these loitering drones to maintain its ability to strike high-value targets — and terrorize Ukrainian cities — from afar, Western analysts say. In recent days, they have been used to strike energy infrastructure.
Unlike more traditional, larger and faster military drones that return to base after dropping missiles, the Iranian-supplied drones are designed to crash into a target and explode, detonating their warhead and destroying the drones in the process. They are smaller and more easily controlled than cruise missiles.
The US doesn’t know exactly how many drones Iran has provided to Russia, but military analysts say the number is clearly substantial. Russia fired 43 on Monday alone, with 37 shot down by air defense systems, according to Ukraine’s Air Force. One US defense official estimated the total number to be in the hundreds.
“The big effect is definitely economic exhaustion, attacking Ukraine’s electricity availability going into the winter and also keeping the war nationwide,” said Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses. “They’re essentially using these drones as sort of a poor man’s precision guided weapon against Ukrainian infrastructure.”
A US defense official told CNN Monday that the Pentagon is now trying to accelerate the delivery of two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS —systems owned by 12 nations and already used to protect Washington, DC.
The US has already committed eight NASAMS to Ukraine including the two being accelerated, according to Pentagon officials.
The US first announced it would send two NASAMs to Ukraine on July 1 in a Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative package of military assistance and announced it would send six more on August 24.
The systems are currently being manufactured by Raytheon in a joint partnership with Norway’s Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace, according to the Pentagon. The US now is hoping to complete manufacturing two of the systems by the end of October or early November – perhaps as much as a full month sooner than originally slated.
Once the systems are completed, they must still be transported to Ukraine. The NASAMS will be flown to a nearby country and then shipped over land into Ukraine.
Drone attacks reflect Russian weakness
Even as they remain deeply concerned about the success Russia has had with the Iranian drones, sources familiar with the intelligence and Western military analysts say that their heavy usage reflects a weakness in Russia’s arsenal.
Western officials believe that Russia is running low on its precision guided munitions, and, according to one source familiar with Western intelligence, is likely on the brink of dipping into its strategic reserves to continue the war.
Russia still has plenty of older, less precise Soviet weapons, the source said – although it’s not clear how much of the old Soviet stockpiles Moscow has managed to bring to the fight because the West doesn’t know how many were sold or stripped for parts after the Cold War.
Still, Ukraine remains deeply vulnerable to attack from the air.
At a meeting of allied defense chiefs focused on Ukrainian aid last week, US Chairman of the Joint chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, said that the US and its allies should contribute air defense systems they have and then help Ukraine knit the systems together to create a comprehensive defense.
“Many countries have other systems, there’s a whole series of Israeli systems that are quite capable. The Germans have systems as we mentioned, so a lot of the countries that were here today have a wide variety of systems,” Milley said.
Milley suggested if multiple countries send the air defense systems they have, Ukrainians can “link” them together “with a command and control and communication systems.”