On New Year’s Eve, Russia launched its own kind of Blitz over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Swarms of Iranian-built suicide drones, upgraded by Russian engineers for increased accuracy and lethality, slammed into targets across the city and across the country itself. Civilians sought shelter and information from Telegram channels. Ukrainian troops manned their guns.
But which guns could be capable of downing an unmanned vehicle, just 11 feet long, coming at them from high altitudes at more than 115 miles per hour? Germany had the answer, and donated them to Ukraine’s armed forces.
Berlin has sent 30 vehicles mounted with the Gepard weapons system to Kyiv in the past few months, according to Politico, with more to come. The Gepard is an anti-aircraft weapon, mounted on top of an armored vehicle, with dual barrels that send twin streams of 35 millimeter ammunition into the sky at incoming targets – and it’s been a game changer for Ukraine.
The New Years Eve Blitz was named after “The Blitz” of 1940, where Nazi bombers terrorized British cities with nighttime aerial raids for around eight months. In Ukraine, Russia launched its blitz of suicide drones and cruise missile beginning at just after noon local time. The bombardment lasted for four hours.
In that time, Ukrainian air defenses dropped more than 80 of the Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and seven Russian cruise missiles over the capital city. The Shahed drones are cheaply made, for around $10,000 apiece, and deliver a “tactically useless” explosive used to terrorize civilians.
The drone’s biggest asset is that, when fired in swarms, they can overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses with their size and numbers. The only warning (at first) of an incoming drone swarm is the telltale sound of its lawnmower-sounding engines. Apart from terrorizing the capital, swarms of Shahed drones have attacked Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and expended Ukraine’s ammunition trying to take them out.
Russia, for its part, simply packs the drones with as much explosive as possible, upgrades its guidance system to work with existing GPS instruments, and launches the weapons with the target GPS coordinates. Russia has hundreds in the battlespace, but Ukraine claims Russia has ordered thousands more from Iran, and may even be working to manufacture them inside Russia.
Since September 2022, the Gepard system has been used to shoot down an estimated 540 Shahed-136 kamikaze drones. Ukraine hails the vehicles as effective for protecting Ukrainian ground forces against the drones and against Russian cruise missiles, but says the Gepard alone isn’t enough for its needs. Add to that the fact that ammunition may start running out.
The most important factor is that the vehicle’s 35-millimeter ammunition is manufactured in neutral Switzerland, and the government of Switzerland won’t allow Germany to export the ammo to Ukrainian battlefields, given its officially neutral status. When Germany asked the Swiss for almost 13,000 rounds to be sent to Ukraine, the Swiss rejected the German proposal.
In response, Germany began manufacturing its own ammunition for the weapons, but production was slow to ramp up and the first rounds won’t be deliverable until later in 2023. The United States and other NATO allies have since looked to their stockpiles for compatible ammunition to send, but have so far come up short. In the meantime, Ukraine will have to expand its air defense system to include any weapons that might be effective against the continued onslaught.
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