Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov claimed on Wednesday that Russian forces in Ukraine had used a new laser to destroy a Ukrainian drone. What may be a new possibility may also reflect the critical shortcomings of Russian forces in anti-aircraft missiles and the desire for any good news in a “frozen” campaign.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky quickly appeared in the media, comparing Russia’s advertising campaign for the laser anti-drone system (CUAS) with the “miracle weapons” presented by Nazi Germany in the last days of World War II and its aftermath. Soviet forces were pushing Germany from the West and East.
That’s an exaggeration, says Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “I think he is exaggerating when he says it is despair. I think the Russians have been doing what they have been doing in Syria and Ukraine for years. They took systems on the battlefield as a way to demonstrate or experiment with them. I think they do, they try a system. which has not been found in operational use “, he noted.
A senior US defense official said the United States had seen nothing to confirm Russia’s claims that it had used laser weapons in Ukraine. The weapon allegedly used by Russia is called Zadira and was allegedly mounted on an armored truck.
Given that Russia is estimated to have used a large part of its anti-aircraft missiles and surface-to-surface missiles in Ukraine (Zelensky claims that Russia has fired more than 2,000 missiles since the beginning of the invasion), a more realistic conclusion than the use Zadira’s point is that Russian forces are looking for a cheaper alternative air defense.
The Tor and Pantsir anti-aircraft systems developed by Russia have suffered significant losses from Ukrainian forces and may not have enough ammunition. “I think it is true that Russia is running out of weapons,” Clark said. “They would love to have a lower cost shot per shot and they would love to get something more efficient.”
Tor and Pantsir systems are not effective against small, low-flying drones, Clark said. “The Pantsir have had some success against larger UASs, but even in these cases they are not so good. We are talking about trying to shoot down complex aircraft with great difficulty in locating radars.”
The world’s great powers have been working hard on laser weapons since the 1990s, trying to overcome the inherent atmospheric problems that make it difficult for laser beams. On the battlefield they must operate in conditions where fog, smoke, dust, rain, snow or deliberately dispersed chemicals can scatter the laser beams or block them.
For CUAS to be effective it must also be strong enough in a small, mobile package. The issue of power has been largely resolved, as 30 kW mobile western lasers have been tested and implemented in limited numbers.
However, targeting remains a problem. Due to the narrow, focused nature of lasers, they must be permanently aiming at a target and staying there. That’s why Borisov’s claim that Zadira destroyed the Ukrainian drone “in five seconds” is significant.
Detecting and then firing a drone with a laser takes time and destroys only one target. Other CUAS approaches, such as interfering with drone control frequencies via radio frequencies, are faster and potentially effective across the area, eliminating multiple targets (even swarms) simultaneously.
Zadira has been around since 2017. The Russian Ministry of Defense signed an agreement in August of the same year with the Russian Federal Nuclear Research and Development Center on Zadira-16. Russia also has an anti-satellite laser system called Peresvet. The two may share some targeting and radiation technology, but Borisov was careful to point out that the Peresvet “blinds” an enemy system, while the Zadira destroys it.
Even if the Zadiras operate the way they advertise, does that play a role on the eastern and southern front lines in Ukraine? “I do not think it will have a significant operational impact,” says Clark. “So far, this is a system that has a range of maybe a few kilometers and probably quite limited utility in bad weather.”
The destruction of Zadira may also not be such a major challenge for Ukrainian forces. UAS developers and technicians claim that drones can be protected from lasers by thermal shielding, even by rotating UASs as they approach the target.
If the Zadiras can ultimately be effective, Moscow will welcome them both for tactical reasons and as an alternative to the huge financial cost of the ammunition it uses in Ukraine.
“I do not think this is a propaganda ploy,” Clark said. “I think the Russians are trying to find a way to defeat the drone threat,” he said.