6 October 2022

Iran agreed to supply Russia with its Iranian-made combat drones in mid-July. The original deal was in the number of hundreds, which included surveillance and combat drones. A recent shift in tactics may indicate that this number will increase. Iran sold Russia hundreds of their Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and the Russians are starting to use them more often.

Russian kamikaze drone attacks have stepped up in number over the past three weeks. Most recently, multiple drone strikes in Bila Tserkva, around 90 km south of Kyiv. Six drones hit one building in the town of approximately 200,000 people. Purportedly, the building was a barracks of the 72nd separate mechanized brigade. The kamikaze drone attack on Bila Tserkva has been the closest one to Kyiv and the Kyiv region has been removed from the war for almost a month. These drones have also targeted Odessa and other civilian centres.  It is a rudimentary design and has a delta wing design and approximately the wingspan is 8ft. It has a rugged airframe to sustain damage, it has a claimed range of 2,500 km and a suspected payload of 200lbs. It is estimated that the cost per drone is around $20,000 US. It does not have the ability to change its target in real-time, or at all, which means that it will not be able to take out a Ukrainian tank, or HIMARS or even have the finesse to target entrenched Ukrainian troops. This is in stark contrast to what the Ukrainians have been able to do with drones that have been jerry-rigged to drop munitions on Russian troops or the US-supplied switchblade drones that can be piloted (a loiter) in real-time by frontline soldiers.

This does not mean that these kamikaze drones will not be effective. Countering these drones has proven to be difficult even for Saudi Arabia, given that their wingspan is 8ft, powered by a quiet motor and a rugged airframe designed to take damage. This might mean an expansion of the German-supplied Flakpanzer Gepard system as a cheaper approach to shooting down these drones en masse than expensive anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems such as surface-to-air missiles.

The Shahed-136 is described as a “loitering munition”, but it has no external sensors or real-time guidance and is guided by GPS (or the Russian variant of GLONASS). It is essentially just a cruise missile with a propellor engine. The performance issue of the Shahed-136 is simple. A target’s location is set, the drone is fired and it flies itself to the target, which is great if it is targeting stationary targets such as a munitions depot, power plant or a civilian apartment building. Ukrainians will have to endure a harsh winter and the Russians can make it harder by targeting power plants, fuel depots and other critical infrastructure. Moreover, they already have established this as part of their overall military campaign. It is more than likely that these attacks will continue and if not rise when the frontlines become more static due to the frozen, and dark, winter conditions.

In fact, the Bila Tserkva attack should act as a stark warning to the Ukrainian government. Six drones with a 200lb payload hit the same building. If a critical infrastructure target were to be hit, it could cause destruction and an immense cut of vital services.  It is believed that Houthi rebels in Yemen have used Iranian-supplied Shahed 131/136 drones on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. The 2019 Abqaiq-Khurais attack cut the country’s oil production from 9.8 to 4.1 million barrels a day and its impact was felt after Saudi Arabia claimed the damage was repaired to those facilities weeks later.

Overall Limited Russian Capabilities

The reason why Russia is probably going to utilize these aircraft against civilian targets or critical infrastructure is a simple one. Russia’s military does not have sufficient satellite imagery capabilities to designate targets. There are few Russian military satellites and a fraction of them have high-quality capabilities. Russia has two operational Persona reconnaissance satellites (Kosmos 2486 & 2506), which were launched in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Their operational lifespan was three to five years.  Their maximum resolution is believed to be 50cm per pixel, while American Keyhole spy satellites have a resolution of 5cm per pixel and commercial satellites have a maximum resolution of 15cm per pixel. Russia would find it difficult to operate two spy satellites over Ukraine and determine where camouflaged forward operating bases or command and control assets  are or other vital Ukrainian military centres.

Going back to the Russian GLONASS navigational network. Russia requires 24 satellites in order to be fully functional and only has 23 deployed and several of them nearing their lifespan. Russian efforts to replace satellites and make the GLONASS fully operational have been hampered by sanctions that were in place since 2014 after the annexation of Crimea. Keeping its global positioning system functional is another technological issue that Russia will have to continue to contend with and another Achilles Heel.

Fiesler FI103 V1 “Flying Bomb”

Another critical issue is how Russia has been conducting its war operations. It is still the heavy top-down decision-making of the old Soviet military, which means calling in air, artillery or drone strike means it has to go up the chain of command, decided upon and then relegated down. The Ukrainians have implemented a more western approach which gives lower-ranked (and in the field) officers more manoeuvrability and authorization to call in very time-sensitive support or deployments.

So as Russia expands its Iranian-supplied drone campaign, it will be against targets that it already knows about – power plants, urban centres and so forth. It will be easier for Russia to utilize these drones against the Ukrainian population during the cold, dark winter as the Nazis used their V1 Doodlebugs on London.


Feature Photo: Remnants of a Shahed-136 drone shot down by Ukrainian Forces, Wikimedia Commons

Inset Photo: V1 Flying Bomb, Wikimedia Commons

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]