Alongside the billions of dollars in money and aid the U.S. has sent to Ukraine, a growing collection of new and innovative weapons has captured international attention. Outside of decades-old weapons 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 U.S.-supplied Switchblade and the more mysterious Phoenix Ghost.
Ukraine and Russia use hundreds of drones to spy on each other’s movements, identify targets for artillery, and fire munitions of their own. The drone war over Ukraine’s skies is becoming more intense as both sides modify 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 potentially Iranian, drones. The most recent U.S. aid package, $3 billion aimed at supplying current material and building long-term capacity, features a new weapon: the Vehicle-Agnostic Modular Palletized ISR Rocket Equipment (VAMPIRE). The confusingly named system is not the first or most capable air defense system the Biden administration has supplied to Ukraine, but its unique features and price point put it on the frontier of the evolving fight against small drones.
Compared to massive air defense systems like an S-400 or MIM-104 Patriot, the VAMPIRE looks unassuming. It’s just a four-barrel rocket launcher with a small sensor package on the back of a truck. It’s not exactly hi-tech either: the system fires a missile that’s been produced for a decade and its guidance is traditional. Its advantage, however, is in its modest size and price tag.
Where the VAMPIRE might change the game for the Ukrainians, and for the future of drone warfare, is the low cost. For traditional air defense, which was designed to take down airplanes and helicopters, small drones can present a costly dilemma. Depending on the system, the missile that shoots down the drone could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, much more than the drone itself. Advanced drones also cost millions, but smaller ones can cost a few hundred dollars. Shorter-ranged systems are cheaper but spreading them thin to defeat drones could 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 don’t break the bank.
The VAMPIRE’s munitions cost about $27,000 each—cheap for a guided missile—and the launcher and targeting system can be attached to the back of most pickup trucks. Twenty-seven thousand dollars per round is expensive, but when compared to the U.K.’s $1.5 million Light-Multirole Missile, which was provided to Ukraine and has a similar 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 saving their most advanced anti-aircraft systems for the most important areas of the country.
The VAMPIRE by itself, however, is not a miracle solution for Russian drones in the short term. It will not be ready until May of next year and its short range and four-barrel limit mean that it might not be able to stop a concentration of drones without additional assistance. The range has been the subject of some debate because the missile has more often been fired from aircraft, but it is likely limited to about 2 miles. Additionally, civilian trucks to mount it on are plentiful, but they often lack armor, and could be vulnerable if they operate too close to the front. Ultimately, the VAMPIRE will be a part of a broader ecosystem of different kinds of sensors, launchers, and jammers that make up air defense in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine will be a proving ground of sorts for the VAMPIRE. Not only is it the system’s first combat deployment, but it is 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 systems like it could be the future of short-range air defense. The massive international interest in the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone following its success in Ukraine show how good press drives arms sales. As drones become more and more common, countries that cannot afford high-end air defense, and even countries that can, will want a cheap and mobile system to defend a small area if they think a drone is operating nearby. The success of the VAMPIRE would also allow the U.S. to provide cheap drone defense to partners across the world without fear that they are giving away advanced technology.
Will the VAMPIRE perform as well as advertised? We will see when they start arriving next year. Until then, American willingness to help Ukraine shoot down drones points to the future of conflict, where stopping the enemy’s drones is just as vital as stopping their tanks and ships.