The Ukrainian air force reported on January 1 that 45 “Shahed” drones were destroyed by air defences. According to the report, thirteen drones were shot down by the end of 2022 and 32 more in the following year. Ukrainian authorities did not specify whether any of the drones struck their intended objectives, although the country claimed massive infrastructural damage.
What do we know about Shahed-136 drones up till now?
Iran has denied selling Russian drones, yet photographs circulating on social media prove that Russian soldiers assaulted Ukrainian cities with Iranian-made Shahed-136 suicide drones. In September 2022, the Shahed-136 delta-wing Kamikaze drones were spotted for the first time in use. According to reports, these are the same drones used by Houthi militants in 2019 to target Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure. John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council of the United States, asserted that Iranian military forces assisted Russian pilots that struck Kyiv in Crimea.
Since the beginning of the Ukraine conflict on February 24, 2022, Russia has fired thousands of cruise missiles and bombs at various targets. However, until October 2022, using a considerable number of Kamikaze drones was not part of their game plan. What, then, has changed?
As cruise missile inventories dwindle, Russia has resorted to utilising Iranian-made Kamikaze drones, which experts warn could significantly strain conventional air defences. It has purchased drones from Iran in order to perform Kamikaze strikes on essential sites and destroy the infrastructure of Ukraine.
Iranian Kamikaze drones, formally named “Geranium 2” in Russian military service, are fired from various air, sea, and land platforms and utilise real-time GPS coordinates for precise and accurate targeting. The loitering missile of the next generation is a Kamikaze drone along with a payload, launcher, and transport bag. It is fired from a tube and can be disengaged or aborted at any time, even at the last minute, depending on the operator’s instructions.
A modest piston engine drives the Shahed-136’s wooden propeller. It is an incredibly small, low-flying, slow-moving drone that flies more like a model aeroplane than a military weapon. It is quite easy to use. The operator must upload the target coordinates and launch the satellite using a modest booster rocket. Due to its small size (wingspan of approximately two metres) and slow speed, typically below the threshold for most radars, it is challenging to detect with radars or electro-optical equipment.
Specs of the Shahed 136 / Geran-2
Although the actual features of the Shahed 136 / Geran-2 are still unclear, information can be deduced from the wreckage and video. The essential characteristics of the Shahed-136 are listed below.
- Length: 3.5 m;
- Wingspan: 2.5 m;
- Weight: 200 kg;
- Engine: Mado MD550 or 3W;
- Power: 50 hp. (37 kW);
- Flight range: 1,000 km;
- Maximum flight range: up to 2,500 km;
- Cruising speed: 185 km/h;
- Flight height: 60-4,000 m;
- Main armament: high-explosive fragmentation, weighing 40-50 kg
Many tanks, self-propelled artillery pieces, and wheeled vehicles, including those supplied by NATO, were destroyed due to the usage of the Shahed-136, according to a statement published accompanying the photos by Russia’s defence ministry.
Valuable and costly Russian aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles have been replaced with disposable and inexpensive Kamikaze drones. Kamikaze drones are smaller and less expensive than cruise missiles. In addition, smaller units may transport and launch these weapons from safer places than conventional indirect-fire weapons. In 2020, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan was the first illustration of the effects of Kamikaze drones in a conventional battle. During the fight, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and loitering munitions may eliminate powerful ground forces, including T-72 tanks and advanced S-300 air defence systems.
In comparison to long-range cruise missiles, Shahed-like loitering munitions are more cost-effective. Each Cruise Missile can cost between $1.5 million and $2 million. Depending on its level of sophistication, the price of a Kamikaze drone can range from $20,000 to $100,000. As all hovering munitions are distinct, costs vary.
According to AeroVironment, the manufacturer of the ‘Switchblade’ Kamikaze drone given to Ukrainian forces by the United States, loitering explosives are particularly valuable in peer-to-peer conflict. In battles against modern, well-equipped armies, they can readily grant a considerable edge to troops with inferior technological capabilities. AeroVironment claims that loitering munitions “can tip the scale, upset the balance of combat force, and become the modern stone in David’s digital slingshot.” As stand-ins for deep-attack aircraft or long-range artillery that a less-advanced force may lack, they deliver an astounding efficiency level, cutting through and above enemy defences to precisely strike targets that would otherwise be beyond the range for the employing force.
In addition, it is believed that the Russian Shahed-136 Kamikaze drones are considerably less advanced than the ‘Harop’ loitering munitions, which played a significant role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. According to a Ukrainian study on Iranian drones, the explosive-laden, 40-kilogram Shahed is only effective against fixed, non-moving targets; therefore, it is unlikely to swing the balance of the war. Even if conventional missile supplies dwindle, Russia can still launch long-range attacks.
However, Shahed-136 has disadvantages as well.
- Targetable with ease – Shahed-136 is extremely difficult to detect, but if it is (currently being researched are methods to identify it), its slow speed makes it easy to shoot down.
- Dependence on Satellite – The Shahad-136 is susceptible to getting lost due to its reliance on satellite navigation, which is sensitive to interference.
- Distinctive acoustic signature – The Shahed-136 can be heard from many kilometres away. It employs a Chinese MD550 engine that is excessively noisy. The drone’s engine noise was compared by Ukrainian soldiers to that of a motorcycle or a lawnmower. Therefore, the Ukrainians have dubbed these drones “mopeds.” The Chinese manufacturer Mado MD550 has replicated the Volkswagen Boxer-based German engine Limbach L550E. Despite its engine’s 50 horsepower and high efficiency, the Shahed- 136 can travel long distances.
The Shahed 136 are manufactured by the Iranian Aircraft Industrial Company (HESA). Since Iran has been subject to US sanctions for more than four decades, HESA engineers have restricted access to modern electronics and components. As a result, they employ a variety of deceptions, such as incorporating easily accessible civilian components onto military UAVs.
It is tough to remove every Shahed-136 UAV in a swarm. First, 5–10 of these UAVs are deployed in swarms. Each launcher in a standard automobile container holds five drones. The Shahed-136 is challenging to detect by radar because of its small size, composite construction, and low-altitude flight.
Nevertheless, it is not impossible to resist Shahed-class Kamikaze drones. Against Iranian drones, the German-made air defence tanks, self-propelled Shilka anti-aircraft guns, and 9K33 Osa, also known as SAM-8, missile launchers are highly effective. It is wasteful to attack a little, affordable drone with a costly anti-aircraft missile when insufficient. Light anti-aircraft systems such as the FIM-92 Stinger type, Piorun, or Starstreak would be a solution, despite their inability to cover all of Ukraine’s vulnerable spots and locations. These systems have the disadvantage of being point defence weapons, meaning that only vital positions can be protected. Far too many of these systems will be required to defend a metropolis adequately.
The Russian military does not utilise Iranian drones due to their poor performance in colder regions. According to Yevgeny Silkin, spokesperson for the Joint Forces Command for Strategic Communications of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Shahed-136 Kamikaze drones are built of plastic and other non-freeze-resistant materials. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) cannot operate in subfreezing conditions, preventing their use. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have not identified any Russian drone activity since November 17. Unconfirmed is whether the Russian position on not using the Shahed-136 is due to a lack of drones or the drone’s incapability. However, Russia continued to use these drones in the battle.
Russian modifications of Shahed-136 drones
Russia has upgraded the accuracy of its Shahed-136 drones by installing GLONASS navigation equipment. According to Russian media, their effective range has grown from roughly 170 to 200 kilometres to approximately 300 kilometres. These modifications have decreased the drone’s warhead carrying capacity. The most recent data resulting from these upgrades are not yet accessible.
Several lessons are being learned from Ukraine’s employment of loitering weapons. In the coming months and years, it is projected that military field manuals and tactics, techniques, and procedures will undergo rapid modification. More utilisation and resulting demand will encourage the loitering munitions sector to develop new systems with enhanced lethality and pinpoint targeting.
Developing effective anti-drone countermeasures against drones of the Shahed-136 class is a further difficulty, as a costly anti-aircraft missile is ineffective against a small, affordable drone. There should be a greater quantity of them. Light anti-aircraft systems would be a solution, notwithstanding their inability to cover every nearby object.