Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov claimed on Wednesday that Russian forces in Ukraine used a new laser to destroy a Ukrainian drone. What could be a new capability could also reflect the Russian armed forces’ crucial lack of antiaircraft missiles and a desire for good news in a deadlocked campaign.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was quick to turn to the media, comparing Russia’s laser system for unmanned aerial vehicles (CUAS) to the “wonder weapons” unveiled by Nazi Germany in the closing days of World War II, when Allied and Soviet forces converged for West and East Germany.
That’s an exaggeration, says Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “I think he’s exaggerating when he says it’s desperation. I think the Russians are doing what they have been doing in Syria and Ukraine for years. They brought the systems to the battlefield for demonstration or experimentation. I think that’s what they’re doing, testing a system that had no operational benefit.”
A senior US defense official said the US had seen nothing to corroborate Russia’s claims that it had used laser weapons in Ukraine. The weapon Russia allegedly used is called Zadira (“Bully” in English) and would have been mounted on an armored truck.
Given that Russia is estimated to have spent a large chunk of its antiaircraft and surfacetosurface missiles on Ukraine (Zelenskiy claims it has fired over 2,000 missiles since the invasion began to get little tactical feedback), one possible reason for this his vaunted use of Zadir is this Russian armed forces are looking for a cheaper alternative method of antiaircraft protection.
The Tor and Pantsir antiaircraft systems used in Russia have been significantly degraded by Ukraine and are probably out of stock. “I think that’s true [a Rússia] the guns go out,” agrees Clark. “They would like to get something at a lower price, and they would like to get something more effective.”
Tor and Pantsir aren’t effective against small, lowflying drones, Clark points out. “Pantsir has had some success against larger UAS, but even there it’s not that good. you talk about [tentar derrubar] Compound aircraft with low radar signatures. They have a hard time shooting down traditional airtosurface missiles or planes.”
The world’s major powers have been working hard on laser weapons since the 1990s to overcome inherent atmospheric problems that weaken aimed laser beams, which work best in clean air, or ideally in a vacuum. On the battlefield, they must function in conditions where thermal explosions, fog, smoke, dust, rain, snow, foam, or intentionally dispersed dark chemicals can scatter or distract them.
For an effective UCAS, they need to be powerful enough in a small, portable package. The energy problem was largely solved by testing and using limited numbers of mobile Western lasers rated at 30 kilowatts.
However, segmentation remains a problem. Due to the narrow and focused nature of lasers, they must finally be aimed at a target and stay there. That is why Borisov’s claim that Zadira destroyed the Ukrainian drone “in five seconds” is important.
Tracking and then burning a drone with a laser rather than simply blinding it takes time and only kills one target. Other CUAS approaches, such as B. using highpower directed microwave energy or jamming drone control links via RF, are faster and potentially effective in range, eliminating multiple targets (even swarms) at once.
Zadira has been around since around 2017. The Russian Defense Ministry signed an association with the Russian Federal Nuclear Center for Zadira16 research and development in August of the same year. Russia also has an antisatellite laser system called Peresvet. The two may share some targeting and beam technologies, but Borisov was keen to point out that Peresvet “blinds” an enemy system while Zadira destroys it.
Even if Zadira works as advertised, does that matter on Ukraine’s eastern and southern fronts? “I don’t think it’s having a significant impact on operations,” Clark says. So far it’s a system with a range of maybe a couple of kilometers and probably fairly limited use in inclement weather.”
Defeating Zadira should not be a big challenge for the Ukrainian armed forces either. UAS developers and strategists claim that ablative carbon foam thermal shielding can shield drones from lasers by maintaining distance from their targets or even rotating the UAS as they approach the target.
Eventually, if Zadira can be effective, Moscow will welcome her both for tactical reasons and as a little finger on the dike’s huge financial cost of ammunition deployed in Ukraine.
“I don’t think it’s a PR stunt,” Clark concludes. “I think it’s the Russians who are trying to find a way to defeat the threat. [dos drones]”.