A group of Iranian-provided Shahed-136 drones struck Kyiv on October 17, reportedly killing at least four people, including a woman who was in a residential building and six months pregnant. About a week earlier, a barrage of Russian cruise missiles destroyed at least five residential buildings, reportedly killing at least 13 people and injuring more than 87 others, including 10 children.
Moscow is using its remaining cruise missiles and recently-procured Iranian drones to destroy infrastructure such as electrical substations, increase political pressure on Kyiv, and break the will of the Ukrainian population to resist the unprovoked Russian invasion.
The United States is sending the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) to help Ukraine deal with the cruise missile threat, but these systems are not ideally suited to deal with Russian attacks using Iranian-provided drones. To deal with the drone threat and to protect the NASAMS once they arrive, Washington should expedite the delivery of Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment (VAMPIRE) systems and send Counter – Rocket, Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) systems as an interim solution.
NASAMS, jointly developed by Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace, consist of an AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel Radar, AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM), a command center, and launcher. The first two NASAMS are now in the U.S. government’s hands, and Ukrainian troops are being trained on how to employ the system. Both firing units are expected to arrive in Ukraine in the next few weeks. Six more units are projected to arrive in Ukraine next year (probably much later next year).
NASAMS provides a robust cruise missile defense capability (it helps protect Washington, D.C. against cruise missiles), but the system may struggle to counter Iranian Shahed-136 drones. That’s because of the Iranian drones’ challenging combination of slow speed, low flight profile, limited radar cross-section, and ability to attack in swarms from multiple directions. Those capabilities could enable a group of Shaheds to overwhelm a single NASAMS. Even if NASAMS were more effective against the Iranian drones, it is worth noting the cost per AMRAAM that NASAMS fires dramatically exceeds the cost of a Shahed-136 drone (upwards of 30 to 1).
The Ukrainians, therefore, need a low-cost counter-drone capability – and fast. Such a system could better protect key infrastructure and the NASAMS themselves. In fact, Ukrainian planners should plan to put counter drone systems in the vicinity of NASAMS firing units to avoid the disaster of an inexpensive Shahed drone destroying a newly-arrived NASAMS due to insufficient protection. That’s a technique that the United States has employed in the Middle East to protect its Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems there.
The over 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems the U.S. has already provided can help, but we should expect to see more Iranian drones used in Ukraine. For that reason, Washington should be looking to send additional counter-drone capability to Kyiv.
The U.S. has two effective candidates, one in development and one already fielded. Washington should send both to Ukraine as soon as possible.
The VAMPIRE system is composed of an electro-optical and infrared sensor ball (to detect the drone), a laser designator (to track the drone), and a four-round launcher of 70mm short range rockets (to engage the drone) – all loaded on the back of a pickup truck. It is low cost at roughly $27,000 a round.
The problem with the VAMPIRE system is that a contract has not been awarded yet and is unlikely to arrive in Ukraine before May 2023, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder. Meanwhile, Shahed-136 attacks continue, and Ukraine needs additional help countering Iranian drones immediately.
Congress would be wise to ask about delays in finalizing the contract and what can be done to expedite the VAMPIRE’s delivery. In the next breath, Congress should confirm that maximum possible quantities are being produced and sent.
In the meantime, the U.S. Army’s C-RAM system can help. It is a derivative of the U.S. Navy’s Phalanx Close-In Weapons System which is used to protect U.S. Navy ships against cruise missiles and other threats. Over the last forty years, the Navy has purchased and employed many of these systems. The Army purchased a total of 53 C-RAM systems by April 2022, primarily to protect U.S. bases in the Middle East.
The system consists of a 20mm gatling gun, integrated infrared and radar search and tracking systems, and power generators, all mounted on a trailer. Similar to VAMPIRE, its cost per engagement is a fraction of NASAMS’. U.S. Army C-RAM systems have engaged and destroyed hundreds of enemy rockets and mortars in Iraq and Afghanistan and apparently shot down two incoming drones in Baghdad in January of this year.
As Washington reduced force structure in the Middle East, a decision was made to halt C-RAM production. The Army, however, can provide 3 or 4 of its current C-RAM systems to Ukraine immediately to help Kyiv address the drone threat until the VAMPIRE systems arrive. The Army will need to procure more anti-drone systems to replace the ones sent to Ukraine and strengthen existing American vulnerabilities, with the goal of ensuring that U.S. Central Command has sufficient systems to protect U.S. troops when the next escalation comes from Tehran and its terror proxies.
As the Kremlin escalates its cruise missile and Iranian-drone attacks against the people of Ukraine, Americans can do more than just condemn the attacks. In addition to ensuring Ukraine receives the full allotment of NASAMS as quickly as possible, the United States should also send C-RAMS and VAMPIRE systems without delay. Together, they can save Ukrainian lives and ultimately help defeat the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion.
Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery is the senior director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation. Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at FDD.
Ryan Brobst, a research analyst at FDD, contributed to this article.
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