Ukraine faces a difficult situation in its war with the Russian Federation, which is increasingly using low-cost Iranian-made drones.
Manufacturing a Shahed 136 “kamikaze” model costs about $20,000, but shooting down this aircraft costs Ukrainians between $140,000 and $500,000, according to calculations by The New York Times. This gives Russia an economic advantage in the conflict.
In the latest Russian-initiated drone strike last year, 84 Shahed 136 units slammed into targets in Ukraine. All were shot down, according to Kiev. The cost, however, was huge for the defenders.
Ukraine has used a variety of weapons to shoot down drones, from cheap ones (archaic Soviet-made anti-aircraft guns or small-calibre weapons) to complex systems (German Flakpanzer Gepard tanks or expensive Western-made missile systems).
Because they fly very low and at slow speeds, “Made in Iran” drones, sent several at a time, are hard to detect and intercept. That’s why Ukraine has increasingly had to use complex systems to counter them. In many cases the defenders have turned to NASAMS (National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems) received from the US. A one-off use of this platform costs $500,000.
Mathieu Boulègue, a Russia expert at the Chatham House Institute, says these costs are irrelevant as long as the US and the West continue to support Ukraine militarily. According to some calculations, 5% of the US defence budget in 2022 destroyed 50% of the military technology in Russian use in Ukraine. Moreover, if lives and infrastructure are saved, the costs are justified.
Kiev would also receive Patriot anti-aircraft systems, some of the most advanced in the world. The announcement was made by the White House in December 2022. Operating these systems is extremely expensive.
Cheap drones have been a big problem for some armies even before this conflict. US General David Perkins announced in 2020 that a US ally fired a $3 million Patriot missile to destroy a $200 drone.