What are the Iranian kamikaze drones being used by Russia in Ukraine?

Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used extensively in conflicts in the Middle East, including the wars in Yemen and Syria

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Fiery explosions rocked Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on Monday when the city was struck with as many as 28 explosive drones, according to the town’s mayor.

Vitali Klitschko said an apartment building was destroyed, killing three people, including a pregnant woman.

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The range of the Shahed-136 is less important than the loitering time. This is the amount of time the drone can circle over a target area. Even with a small fuel pod, the Shaheds should be able to loiter two to three hours.
Scott Crino, US drone expert

In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have released images of what analysts say is the wreckage of Iran-made Shahed-136 drones, fired at targets across the country.

They have a distinctive V-shape and tail fins that often survive the explosive impact.

The so-called “kamikaze drones” — named because their attacks mimic Japanese suicide attack aircraft in the Second World War — are cheap and can be used in large “swarms” to overwhelm enemy air defences.

Is Iran sending drone supplies to Russia?

On Tuesday, the EU said it was investigating Ukrainian claims that Iran had funnelled the drones to its adversary. The US says Iran has sent “hundreds” of the weapons.

Iran has reportedly also sent a larger, longer range drone that can fly at relatively high altitude compared to the Shahed-136, the Mohajer 6 — but it is more vulnerable to anti-aircraft systems due to its size.

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Iran has mastered this remarkably cheap but deadly technology, sometimes known as the “poor man’s cruise missile”.

A UN investigation in early 2020 detailed how Iran-made drones had inflicted devastating damage on Saudi oil infrastructure in September 2019 — and may even have been launched from Iran. Attacks on the UAE, as well as further attacks on Saudi Arabia and on US forces in Iraq and Syria, were committed by Iran-backed militias, using similar drones.

The supply of drones by Tehran represents a stepped up alliance between the countries. It has surprised some analysts as Russia has touted itself for years as a military superpower with a strong domestic arms industry, including the production of drones.

But amid international sanctions and a high-intensity conflict that is consuming vast quantities of arms on both sides, Russia has struggled to obtain electronic components for its advanced missiles and drones, leading Moscow to reach out to Iran.

The alliance between the two countries has led to fury in Europe and the US, which has sent Ukraine about $60 billion in aid, including $25bn in military support.

Western governments are now warning Iran of new sanctions.

What are Iran’s kamikaze drones?

Iran has a large array of the “loitering munitions”, slow-moving aircraft that are remotely guided. The Shahed-136 is powered by a 50-horsepower engine with a top speed of 185 kilometres an hour.

These drones can “loiter” as they look for targets. They originated in the 1980s when they were used for target practice during air defence training.

But countries such as Iran, Israel and the US soon came to realise the potential that came with adding cameras for reconnaissance and explosives to drones that would be crashed into targets.

The weapons are attractive to countries without vast defence budgets, unlike the US.

They come at a far smaller price tag than cruise missiles, which often cost more than $1 million per missile and fly at low level, usually with a pre-programmed flight path, making them hard to shoot down because they travel under most radar coverage.

As is the case with cruise missiles, the drones have a very small radar signature, making them difficult for air defences to intercept.

In conflicts such as the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, cheap loitering munitions have been credited with destroying far more expensive anti-aircraft systems such as the S-300, creeping up on them at a low altitude.

Now both Russia and Ukraine are on the sharp end of these systems. Earlier this week, conflict monitors said Russian loitering munitions had destroyed at least one Ukrainian S-300 system.

However, Ukraine has also made use of Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, which wreaked havoc among advancing Russian forces in the early stages of the war.

How can Ukraine stop Russian drones?

Iran claims its Shahed-136 drones have a range of 2,500km, something experts say is unlikely.

“The range of the Shahed-136 is less important than the loitering time,” said Scott Crino, an expert on drone systems and counter-drone technology, tells The National.

“This is the amount of time the drone can circle over a target area. Even with a small fuel pod, the Shaheds should be able to loiter two to three hours, which should be sufficient time to enable spotters on the ground to find targets and direct Shahed attacks,” he said.

But Mr Crino points to a large and growing potential arsenal of counter-drone systems that Nato could supply to Ukraine, including Norway's ground-based National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (Nasams), which makes use of heat-seeking missiles that are usually fired by aircraft in dogfights.

The US is acquiring Nasams for Ukraine, said Mr Crino, adding that this was announced by the Department of Defence in July.

But he warned the vast expanse of contested areas in Ukraine would be difficult for the country’s defenders to cover with any one system. There would be no silver bullet solution to enemy drone swarms.

“Nasams is a medium-range air defence system. While it is state-of-the-art, the allies will be challenged to provide air defence coverage over the entirety of the Ukraine territory,” Mr Crino said.

France is planning to deploy a similarly powerful system, the Crotale, which consists of missile launchers mounted on an armoured vehicle, with an array of radars configured to detect small targets at close range, to offer short-range air defence.

Germany has also sent the armoured vehicle mounted Gepard system, according to government adviser Anton Gerashchenko. The “flakpanzer” is fitted with two radars and two powerful “autocannons” which can fill the sky with 1,100 exploding shells per minute to a range of 5km.

In the meantime, the US has supplied smaller counter-drone systems than Nasams, including the Titan system, a boxlike device bristling with antennas that analyses incoming drones and quickly suggests the best way to take them down, whether using signal-jamming devices, machine guns or more expensive means, such as portable anti-aircraft systems.

Of the latter, Ukraine has used shoulder-launched Stinger and 9K35 Strela-10 anti-aircraft missiles to intercept drones and cruise missiles.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 8:43 PM
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