Are Russia’s New Drone Killing Lasers Effective Weapons or A Sign of Desperation?

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Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov claimed Wednesday that Russian forces in Ukraine used a new laser to destroy a Ukrainian drone. What may be a new capability may also reflect Russian forces’ crucial shortages of anti-air missiles and desire for any good news in a stalled campaign.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy quickly took to the media, comparing Russia’s laser counter unmanned aircraft system (CUAS) hype to the “wonder weapons” that Nazi Germany unveiled in the closing days of WWII as Allied and Soviet forces converged on Germany from West and East.

That’s an exaggeration Hudson Institute Senior Fellow, Bryan Clark, says. “I think he’s overstating it when he says this is desperation. I think the Russians are doing what they’ve done in Syria and Ukraine for years. They’ve taken systems to the battlefield as a way of demonstrating or experimenting with them. I think this is what they’re doing, trying a system that hasn’t seen operational use.”

A senior U.S. defense official said the U.S. has seen nothing to corroborate Russia’s claims that it used laser weapons in Ukraine. The weapon Russia claims to have used is called Zadira (“Bully” in English) and was reportedly mounted on an armored truck.

Given that Russia is estimated to have expended a large portion of its anti-air and surface-to-surface missiles in Ukraine (Zelenskiy claims it has fired over 2,000 missiles since the invasion began for little tactical return), a more realistic takeaway from its trumpeted use of Zadira is that Russian forces are looking for a cheaper alternative anti-air protection.

Russia’s deployed Tor and Pantsir anti-aircraft systems have been significantly attritted by Ukraine and are likely short of rounds. “I think it’s true that [Russia] is running out of weapons,” Clark agrees. “They would love to get a lower-cost-per-shot [capability] and they’d love to get something more effective.”

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Tor and Pantsir are not effective against small, low flying drones Clark points out. “Pantsir has had some success against larger UAS but even there it’s not that good. You’re talking about [trying to shoot down] composite aircraft with low radar signatures. They have difficulty shooting down traditional air to surface missiles or aircraft.”

The world’s major powers have been working in earnest on laser weapons since the 1990s, looking to overcome the inherent atmospheric problems that blunt targeted laser beams which favor clear air or, ideally, a vacuum to work. On the battlefield they have to function in conditions where thermal blooming, fog, smoke, dust, rain, snow, smog, foam, or purposely dispersed obscurant chemicals can diffuse or deflect them.

For effective CUAS they also have to be sufficiently powerful in a small, mobile package. The power issue has largely been resolved as mobile western lasers with 30 kilowatts of energy have been tested and fielded in limited numbers.

However, targeting remains a problem. Because of the narrow, focused nature of lasers, they have to be aimed finitely at a target and stay on it. This is why Borisov’s claim that Zadira destroyed the Ukrainian drone “in five seconds” is important.

Tracking and then burning up a drone – rather than simply dazzling it – with a laser takes time and only kills one target. Other CUAS approaches like using high power microwave directed energy or jamming drone control links via RF are quicker and potentially area-effective, taking out multiple targets (swarms even) at a time.

Zadira has been around since about 2017. Russia’s Defense Ministry signed a contact in August of that year with the Russian Federal Nuclear Center for research and development of the Zadira-16. Russia also has an anti-satellite laser system called Peresvet. The two may share some targeting and beaming technology but Borisov was keen to point out that Peresvet “blinds” an enemy system whereas Zadira destroys it.

Even if Zadira works as advertised, does it matter on the eastern and southern front lines in Ukraine? “I don’t think it’s going to have a significant operational impact,” Clark says. So far, it’s one system that has a range of maybe a couple kilometers and probably pretty limited utility in poor weather conditions.”

Defeating Zadira might also not be that big a challenge for Ukrainian forces. UAS developers and tacticians maintain that drones can be protected against lasers with ablative heat shielding of carbon foam, by standing off a distance from their targets, even by having the UAS’ spin as they approach target.

If Zadira can eventually be effective, Moscow will welcome it both for tactical reasons and as a minor finger in the dyke of the massive financial cost of the munitions it’s using up in Ukraine.

“I don’t think it’s a PR stunt,” Clark concludes. “I think it’s the Russians trying to come up with some way to defeat the [drone] threat.

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