Ancient anti-aircraft guns are taking on a new mission amid Russia's war in Ukraine
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A Ukrainian soldier on a ZU-23-2 anti-aircraft gun on the front line north-east of Kyiv on March 3. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images
Since Russia attacked in February, military planes, missiles and drones have filled the skies over Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine have both turned to older anti-aircraft guns to bolster their air defenses.
These older anti-aircraft guns have found new life in an attempt to shoot down slow, low-flying drones.
Flak is back.
Russian and Ukrainian forces are both discovering that they need plenty of air defenses - including relatively low-tech anti-aircraft guns - to deal with the jets, helicopters, drones and missiles that populate the skies over Ukraine.
Anti-aircraft artillery has been around since World War I, when machine guns and cannons were used to shoot down newfangled flying machines. During World War II, half of the Allied bombers shot down over Germany could fall victim to "Flak" - a shortened version of a 1930s German word for anti-aircraft guns.
In the 1950s, however, the advent of high-speed, high-altitude aircraft made cannons and machine guns less useful as guided missiles, which fly at Mach 4 and can reach altitudes of 100,000 feet.
But Russia is now bombing Ukrainian cities and power plants with waves of drones and cruise missiles, and Ukraine is sending its drones in pursuit of Russian tanks and artillery.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy next to an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone. Screenshot/Official website of the President of Ukraine
Using large, expensive, long-range surface-to-air missiles known as SAMs to stop a low-tech drone like a quadcopter is like using an elephant gun to stop a flea. Increasing reliance on relatively slow, low-flying missiles and aircraft has made flak indispensable again.
"Anti-aircraft guns have been underemphasized, but they should never have been neglected," Nick Reynolds, land warfare expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, told Insider.
Reynolds co-authored a new RUSI study on the air war over Ukraine, which analyzed what Ukraine needs to counter the masses of Iranian-made Shahed-136 “kamikaze” drones deployed by Russia .
The study calls on western countries to send Ukraine more self-propelled anti-aircraft guns like the German-made Gepard and more man-portable, short-range air defense systems like the US-made Stinger missiles.
"In general, gun systems are preferred over missiles when possible because of their much lower cost per mission and higher ammunition availability compared to SAMs and MANPADS," the RUSI report said.
A destroyed Russian 2K22 Tunguska self-propelled anti-aircraft gun in eastern Ukraine on September 15.SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images
Both Russia and Ukraine use Soviet-made S-60 anti-aircraft guns from the 1940s. However, newer Soviet-designed anti-aircraft guns, such as the Cold War-era ZSU-23-4 Shilka and 2S6 Tunguska used by both sides, are also of limited use against drones.
"Due to their relatively small size, shape, low-altitude flight, and low speed, older Soviet and Russian self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs) such as the Shilka and Tunguska also have difficulty reliably shooting down the Shahed-136," the RUSI report says.
The study rated Germany's Gepard - a SPAAG with a twin 35mm cannon first deployed in the 1970s - as "highly effective".
Berlin has pledged 50 Gepards - some of which have already been delivered - as part of a multilingual series of Western air defense missiles and cannons being sent to Ukraine. Some pundits have also urged the US to send the 1960s-era M163, a 20mm Vulcan gun mounted on an M113 armored personnel carrier, though it lacks onboard radar needed to detect targets.
Old weapons, new dilemmas
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz inspects a Gepard anti-aircraft gun near Oldenburg on August 25. AXEL HEIMKEN/AFP via Getty Images
The RUSI study suggests that Ukraine faces an air defense dilemma.
Western-made SAMs are effective against Russian jets and cruise missiles, but Ukraine has not received enough backup anti-aircraft missiles to sustain its current rate of fire. MANPADS are good at shooting down "kamikaze drones" and even cruise missiles, but their short range - coupled with Ukraine's 1,000-mile frontline - means large numbers would be needed to support frontline troops and infrastructure in the field to protect your back. Anti-aircraft guns are economical against drones, but their range is short.
In conclusion, the report states that the Shahed-136 "is simple and not particularly difficult to intercept, but most current means of doing so are too expensive or rely on an unacceptable number of weapons required for other defensive missions to capture a to perform adequately medium-term solution."
Older anti-aircraft guns also provide a political advantage. Countries that support Ukraine have been reluctant to supply some high-tech weapons, including jet fighters and long-range missiles that could penetrate deep into Russia, for fear of angering Moscow.
Ukrainian troops with a civilian-designed anti-aircraft machine gun in Mykolaiv on November 9.Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
But old-fashioned flak is a safe bet, the RUSI report argues: “Neither MANPADS nor SPAAGs should be considered politically sensitive, as they are essentially defensive weapons needed to protect civilian infrastructure and do not require the very latest cutting-edge technology to be effective. "
Even as more sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons have been deployed, anti-aircraft guns have remained useful, albeit in more limited roles. They proved deadly over North Vietnam and in the Middle East - during the October 1973 War, Israeli pilots diving deep to avoid SAMs operated by Arab forces were often chewed up by the Shilka and other anti-aircraft guns.
In conjunction with newer air defense systems, anti-aircraft guns can still be deadly against helicopters, attack aircraft and drones operating at lower altitudes, as many Russian planes are forced to do over Ukraine.
"Medium- and long-range SAMs are most effective when complemented by a robust network of anti-aircraft guns capable of threatening any aircraft attempting to evade higher-altitude threats by flying low," Reynolds told Insider. "Creating such dilemmas by layering different systems is an essential part of an integrated air defense network."
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine, and other publications. He has a Masters in Political Science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Read the original article on Business Insider
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