Russia has exhausted its stockpile of Iran-supplied kamikaze drones after Ukraine’s “creativity” defeated them, western officials have said.
It is understood that Russia ran through its Shahed 136 unmanned aerial vehicles two weeks ago after firing an estimated arsenal of 400 drones.
The kamikaze aircraft led to a new bombing campaign on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities when the Tehran-supplied UAVs were unleashed in October, flying over urban areas before nosediving and detonating their 40kg warheads.
At the time Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced Tehran’s supply to Moscow as “a collaboration with evil”.
But now that collaboration is in doubt after officials confirmed that Iran had temporarily halted exporting the drones following production issues and the need to keep them for its own operations.
“We have been told that they have run out but the Russians anticipate a resupply,” the official said. “It is something that concerns us and something we are monitoring very closely.”
The Shahed 136 is a long-range unmanned aerial vehicle that can strike targets more than 2,000km away. It is propeller driven — giving it a low speed of about 185 kph — and its guidance is by GPS, making it accurate.
But it is thought both of those features also make it vulnerable to ground fire and electronic jamming. Footage shot by Ukrainian forces has shown German-supplied Gepard anti-aircraft tanks taking out what appear to be drones using one-second bursts from their twin 35mm cannons.
Asked by The National how effective the Shaheds had been, the official praised Ukraine’s ability to adapt their air defences.
“In terms of effectiveness, while the drones obviously created a new dimension and gave the Russians additional capability we don't think they've been terribly effective,” he said. “The Ukrainians have been quite creative about how they've organised themselves to defeat them.”
He added that Iranian production issues are “a consideration” in the shortage, and that the regime would “want to think carefully about what it's committing.”
“There'll also be a deeper conversation about what arrangement the Iranians and Russians are coming to. How far Iran is prepared to go into its own production capabilities and stockpiles will depend on what they think they are getting out of their partnership with Russia,” he said. “We'll have to watch that unfold.”
The 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.
It is estimated that Ukraine shot down more than 75 per cent of the kamikaze attacks. But when they struck targets they proved destructive and were potentially responsible for taking out 30 per cent of Ukraine’s electricity supplies.
But Ukraine has now used its own drones to attack bomber bases deep inside Russia adapting Soviet-era Tu-141s on Monday, in an assault that could have a “psychologically powerful” impact on Moscow’s thinking.
“This is where the Russians keep their strategic long-range bombers,” the official said. “They will have to think about how they distribute those assets and keep them safe. It may have the effect of pushing those bombers into dispersed locations. It certainly makes the Russians less confident that anywhere is safe.”