West scrutinises Iran kamikaze drone supplies to Russia

Moscow has resorted to cheap but deadly unmanned vehicles as the barrage from its precision missiles stockpiles is 'unsustainable', western officials say

A drone approaches for an attack in Kyiv. AFP
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Western countries are closely monitoring kamikaze drone and potential missile shipments from Iran to Russia, officials have disclosed.

It is also becoming clear that Moscow’s generals are becoming more reliant on Iranian war stocks as their cruise missiles armoury has now been depleted eight months into their invasion of Ukraine.

But there are concerns that Iran may soon provide Russia with surface-to-surface missiles — an international breach of UN sanctions and a development that is being carefully observed, western officials said at a media briefing.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has denounced Tehran’s supplying of arms to Moscow as “a collaboration with evil”.

The officials said Iran had supplied “hundreds” of Shahed 136 drones to Russia that are now being used to terrorise the civilian population and destroy Ukraine’s electricity network.

“Iranian manufactured one-way attack un-crewed aerial vehicles are playing an increasingly significant role,” the official said. “Although we can see that Ukraine is effectively neutralising many, we're continuing to monitor closely whether Iran is extending its military support to include additional types of weapons.”

Asked by The National what the other weapons might be, the official highlighted that there had been US reports about Iran supplying surface-to-surface missiles for Russian’s dwindling stockpile.

“I don't have any more of intelligence on that but the point is we will be keeping a careful watch on it and obviously looking at what it tells us about what the Russian stocks are,” he said.

The ability of the Russians to continue with the “saturating barrages of weapons” was getting to the point where it is now “unsustainable”, the official said.

The Sahed 136 is a long-range unmanned aerial vehicle that can strike targets more than 2,000 kilometres away but carries a relatively small warhead of 40 kilograms.

It is propeller driven — giving it a low speed of about 185 kph — and its guidance is by GPS, making it accurate. But both of those features also make it vulnerable to ground fire and electronic jamming.

Shahed — “martyr” in Persian — is not stealthy and the Ukrainians have nicknamed them “flying mopeds” but at $20,000 each they are cheap to make and when used in swarms they can overwhelm defences. So far, of the estimated 115 attacks against Ukraine an estimated 75 per cent have been shot down.

But if they hit the target they can be very destructive and potentially responsible for taking out 30 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity supplies.

Western officials said the number Russia had “acquired from the Iranians is probably into the hundreds so they've got a reasonable number of them”.

It is not known how many cruise and other precision missiles Russian has manufactured itself but Ukraine intelligence states more than 4,000 have been fired since the invasion began on February 24.

“Although Russian stocks are large, they are not by any means infinite,” a source said. “And when you look at the number of missiles that have been fired off, we think that this is now an issue.

What are Iran's kamikaze drones being used in Ukraine?

A Russian drone is seen during a Russian drone strike, which local authorities consider to be Iranian made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-136, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine October 17, 2022.  REUTERS / Roman Petushkov

He added that President Vladimir Putin’s recent claim that there would be no more attacks on civilian targets was more a reflection on the “state of Russia as missile stocks, rather than due to any humanitarian concern”.

The official did not agree with speculation that Russia was using the Iran drones to exhaust Ukrainian air defence missiles, making it harder for them to then intercept cruise and ballistic missiles.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 10:54 PM