Ukraine is acquiring drone interceptors to help destroy the waves of Iranian-supplied drones which are continuing to target the power supply infrastructure. Russia is reportedly acquiring over 2,000 of the cheap Shahed-136 drones and is using them to attack generating plants and electricity distribution, leading to power cuts. Most of the incoming drones are being shot down, and additional defenses could bring the success rate to 100%.
“The next stage ignites me with energy,” the Head of the Ministry of Digital Transformation and Deputy Prime Minister Mikhail Fedorov told Forbes Ukraine in an interview Monday. “These are drones intercepting other drones.”
MARSS small interceptor is one of several designs which takes out incoming drones by ramming them.
Fedorov calls the interceptors “Shahed catchers” and says they will shoot down Iranian drones before they can reach critical infrastructure but does not give further details.
The have already seen the first drone vs drone dogfights in Ukraine, with consumer quadcopters knocking each other out of the sky, but more advanced interceptors are already on the market.
The standout here is the Anvil made by U.S. startup Anduril, first seen in 2019. A suite of sensors powered by Anduril’s AI Lattice system detects, locates and tracks threats, passing details to Anvil interceptors. The 12-pound Anvil has backwards-facing propellers and a reinforced frame to withstand the force of impact. With a speed of over 100 mph, Anvil will smash apart any drone, it hits, large or small. Launch boxes, each containing two interceptors, are positioned around the area to be defended.
Anduril, which specializes in advanced AI-driven systems, has set out to disrupt the defense market, and appears to be succeeding, with a billion-dollar Pentagon contract for counter-drone systems awarded in January.
This spring, Anduril founder Palmer Luckey told Forbes that his company had systems deployed in Ukraine, but he wouldn’t specify what. No Anduril drones have been spotted in Ukraine so far, but the wave of Shahed-136 attacks might have prompted a quick deal.
Others offer equally sophisticated interceptors. MARSS’ version is also a complete packaged interceptor system which combines networked sensors and interceptors in box launchers. Again, MARSS interceptors are quadcopters which destroy targets by ramming them, but a ducted fan design gives them a higher top speed of more than 170 mph and may make them more survivable when shattering small drones. Again, AI is a key part of the system: the interceptors have a smart vision system to recognize and track targets, and possess “dogfight maneuverability” to pursue and destroy incoming drones.
There are also local drone interceptors, which may not have the same level of maturity, including one known as Fowler and another with no name announced by a Kyiv-based developer in 2019.
Fowler is a Ukrainian-built interceptor drone
What all of these have in common is that they use a large number of small interceptors to counter the threat posed by drones like the Shahed-136, which are launched en masse. A single larger interceptor armed with missiles or machine guns might seem a more obvious choice, but faced with several incoming drones approaching from different directions, it might have trouble getting al of them. Ten interceptors can take out ten threat drones simultaneously and can be cheap enough to expend like ammunition.
“The only thing that can take out a swarm of fast drones is a bigger swarm of faster drones, and that’s exactly what we’re building,” Luckey told Business Insider in 2019.
Interceptor drones could to add another layer of protection on top of the Ukraine’s existing S-300 missiles, shoulder-launched Stingers, Gepard automatic cannon, and even ‘obsolete’ U.S. HAWK missiles now being supplied to Ukraine to beef up defenses. But there may still be a challenge in dealing with the sheer number of drones being thrown at them.
In the interview, Mikhail Fedorov appears to acknowledge the fundamental truth of Luckey’s comment: that victory will go to whoever has the most, and most capable, drones. And he believes this is a contest where Ukraine can win.
“Those who will now be able to scale in terms of management and production of attack drones on an industrial scale will win,” says Fedorov. “This is the issue of forecasting the receipt of funds from the state or volunteers, and management, and competencies.”
Ukraine has already proven highly competent at drone warfare, not least in the recent combined attack by a mass of air and sea drones against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Their technical expertise is becoming the envy of the world. The drone war is on, and Ukraine’s interceptors may be crucial in the next phase.