The US Department of Defense is trying to speed up delivery of two advanced surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine as Russia increasingly uses Iran-supplied drones that explode on impact to destroy Ukrainian cities and infrastructure.
Pentagon efforts are just the latest evidence of a new urgent push by the US and its allies to help Ukraine build a comprehensive air and missile defense system to defend against these drones, which caught four fires in an attack on Kyiv on Monday have killed.
The drones have become an increasingly pressing problem for Ukraine, condemned by the US. The State Department said Monday the drones violate a UN Security Council resolution restricting certain arms transfers into or out of Iran.
As its reserves of precision munitions dwindle, Moscow has turned to these loitering drones to maintain its ability to hit high-value targets — and terrorize Ukrainian cities — from afar, Western analysts say. In the last few days they have been used to hit the energy infrastructure.
Unlike more traditional, larger, and faster military drones that return to base after dropping missiles, the Iran-supplied drones are designed to crash into a target and explode, detonating their warhead and destroying the drones in the process. They are smaller and easier to control than cruise missiles.
The US doesn’t know exactly how many drones Iran has supplied to Russia, but military analysts say the number is clearly significant. According to the Ukrainian Air Force, Russia fired 43 on Monday alone, 37 of which were shot down by air defense systems. A US defense official put the total number in the hundreds.
“The big impact is definitely economic depletion, attacking Ukraine’s electricity availability well into the winter, and also maintaining the war across the country,” said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia studies program at the Center for Naval Analysis. “They’re essentially using these drones as a poor man’s sort of precision-guided weapon against Ukraine’s infrastructure.”
A US defense official told CNN Monday that the Pentagon is now trying to expedite delivery of two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS — systems owned by 12 nations and already deployed to protect Washington, DC will.
According to Pentagon officials, the US has already sent eight NASAMS to Ukraine, including the two that will be accelerated.
The US first announced that it would deploy two NASAMs to Ukraine on July 1 as part of a Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative military assistance package, and announced it would deploy six more on August 24.
The systems are currently being manufactured by Raytheon in a joint partnership with Norway’s Kongsberg Defense and Aerospace, the Pentagon said. The US now hopes to complete manufacturing of two of the systems by late October or early November — perhaps even a full month ahead of schedule.
After completion of the systems, they still have to be transported to the Ukraine. The NASAMS will be flown to a nearby country and then shipped overland to Ukraine.
While they remain deeply concerned about the success Russia has had with Iranian drones, sources familiar with intelligence agencies and Western military analysts say their heavy use reflects a weakness in Russia’s arsenal.
Western officials believe Russia is running low on its precision-guided munitions and is likely on the verge of using its strategic reserves to continue the war, according to a source familiar with Western intelligence.
Russia still has many older, less precise Soviet weapons, the source said – although it’s not clear how many of the old Soviet stocks Moscow was able to get into combat because the West doesn’t know how many were sold or dismantled for parts after Cold War.
Still, Ukraine remains deeply vulnerable to aerial attacks.
At a meeting of allied defense chiefs last week focused on Ukraine aid, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the US and its allies should contribute whatever air defense systems they have, and then to Ukraine should help to put the systems together to create a comprehensive defense.
“Many countries have different systems, there are a number of Israeli systems that are very efficient. The Germans have systems, as we mentioned, so a lot of the countries that have been here today have a wide variety of systems,” Milley said.
Milley suggested that if several countries send the air defense systems they have, the Ukrainians could “link” them “with a command and control and communications system.”