In addition to the billions of dollars in money and aid the US has sent to Ukraine, a growing collection of new and innovative weapons has attracted international attention. Outside of decades-old weapon systems such as the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher and HARM anti-radiation missile, the central focus of public interest has been in drone technology, including the US-supplied Switchblade and the more mysterious Phoenix Ghost.
Ukraine and Russia are using hundreds of drones to spy on each other’s movements, identify artillery targets and fire their own ammunition. The drone war over Ukraine’s skies is intensifying as both sides adapt commercial drones to do everything from dropping grenades into trenches to crashing into oil refineries.
Ukraine is eager to get systems that can shoot down Russian and possibly Iranian drones. The most recent US aid package, $3 billion aimed at providing current equipment and building long-term capacity, includes a new weapon: the Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment (VAMPIRE). The confusingly named system isn’t the first or most capable air defense system the Biden administration has supplied to Ukraine, but its unique features and price put it on the brink of the evolving battle against small drones.
Compared to massive air defense systems like an S-400 or MIM-104 Patriot, the VAMPIRE looks modest. It’s just a rocket launcher with four barrels and a small sensor pack on the back of a truck. It’s not exactly hi-tech either: the system fires a rocket that’s been produced for a decade and the guidance is traditional. The advantage, however, is its modest size and price tag.
Where the VAMPIRE could change the game for the Ukrainians, and for the future of drone warfare, is its low cost. For traditional air defenses, which are designed to bring down planes and helicopters, small drones can present a costly dilemma. Depending on the system, the missile that shoots down the drone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, much more than the drone itself. Advanced drones also cost millions, but smaller ones can cost several hundred dollars. Shorter range systems are cheaper, but spread thinly to defeat drones can reduce their ability to engage helicopters and jets. As drones become cheaper and more available, militaries are looking for ways to shoot them down that won’t break the bank.
The VAMPIRE’s ammunition costs about $27,000 each – cheap for a guided missile – and the launcher and aiming system can be attached to the back of most pickup trucks. Twenty-seven thousand dollars a round is expensive, but compared to the $1.5 million British Light-Multirole Missile, which was delivered to Ukraine and has a comparable range against drones, the financial benefits are immediately apparent. In sufficient numbers, systems like the VAMPIRE give Ukrainian forces the ability to quickly and cheaply threaten Putin’s drones, while preserving their most advanced anti-aircraft defense systems for key areas of the country.
However, the VAMPIRE in itself is not a miracle solution for Russian drones in the short term. It won’t be ready until May of next year, and thanks to its short range and four-barrel limit, it may not be able to stop a concentration of drones without extra help. Its range has been the subject of some debate as the missile has been fired from aircraft more often, but it is likely limited to about 2 miles. Plus, there are plenty of civilian trucks to mount it on, but they often lack armor and can be vulnerable if they operate too close to the front. Ultimately, the VAMPIRE will be part of a wider ecosystem of different types of sensors, launchers and jammers that make up the air defenses in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine will be a kind of testing ground for the VAMPIRE. Not only is it the system’s first combat deployment, but it’s also an unprecedented opportunity to test a counter-drone system in a conflict defined by the use of small drones on the front lines. If it works, the VAMPIRE and similar systems could be the future of short-range air defense. The huge international interest in the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone after its success in Ukraine shows how good press is driving arms sales. As drones become more commonplace, countries that cannot afford high-quality air defense, and even countries that can, will want a cheap and mobile system to defend a small area if they believe a drone is operating nearby. The success of the VAMPIRE would also allow the US to provide low-cost drone defenses to partners around the world without fear of giving away advanced technology.
Will the VAMPIRE perform as well as advertised? We’ll see when they arrive next year. Until then, U.S. willingness to help Ukraine shoot down drones points to the future of a conflict, where stopping the enemy’s drones is just as important as stopping their tanks and ships.
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