The West suspects this is a variant of Iran’s Shahed-136 UAV – a cheap but effective suicide drone.
As the conflict in Ukraine turns into a protracted battle of attrition, low-cost and highly effective weapons are key to maintaining the edge. The West accuses Russia of increasing use of Iranian-supplied UAVs in recent weeks to attack vital Ukrainian infrastructure. Meanwhile, Iran denies supplying UAVs to Russia. Some observers think that Moscow may not directly import them, but Russia has “borrowed” Iranian designs for domestic production. Even so, articles from the US and Europe continue to record the delivery of Iranian-made UAVs to Russia.
Russia is said to have deployed dozens of Geran-2 drones massively attacking Ukrainian targets on the battlefield and they are causing significant damage to the enemy. The West suspects this is a variant of Iran’s Shahed-136 UAV – a cheap but effective suicide drone.
The Shahed 136, is an Iranian loitering munition autonomous swarm pusher-prop aerial drone in service since 2021, developed by HESA. At its core, it is designed to attack ground targets from a distance. The relatively cheap drone is fired in multiples from a launch rack and is designed to evade air defenses and overwhelm ground targets, consuming air defence resources during the attack.
The drone was revealed in December 2021 through published footage. The system is believed to first have been actively deployed to Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, before being actively used by the Russian Army during their invasion of Ukraine, from September 2022. The drone is 3.5 metres long with a wingspan of 2.5 metres, flies at over 185 kilometres per hour, and weighs about 200 kilograms.
The aircraft has a cropped delta-wing shape, with a central fuselage blending into the wings and stabilizing rudders at the tips. The nose section contains the warhead as well as the optics required for a precision attack. The engine sits in the rear of the fuselage and drives a two-bladed propeller in a “pusher” arrangement. The range has been estimated as between 1,800 and 2,500 kilometres providing a loitering capability.
The aircraft are launched nearly horizontally at a slight upward angle and are assisted in the initial phase of flight by rocket launch assistance. The rocket is jettisoned immediately after launch, whereupon the drone’s conventional Iranian-made Mado MD-550 four-cylinder piston engine takes over. Because of the portability of the launch frame and drone assembly, the entire unit can be mounted on the back of any military or commercial truck, enabling mobile “hit-and-run” operations that can thwart countermeasures.
Unlike traditional UAVs which are larger in size and speed to be able to return to base after launching a missile, kamikaze UAVs are smaller and are designed to hit a target and then explode on its own. This feature reminds one of kamikaze attacks by Japanese pilots during World War II when they flew explosives-laden fighter jets to attack American warships and aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater.
During the October 17 drone attack in the capital Kiev, the city’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said that 28 UAVs were used to conduct mass attacks. Launched from a truck-mounted launchers, these UAVs fly low and slow so they can evade radar detection. At around $20,000 each, the Shahed UAVs are much cheaper than a fully functional missile. By comparison, Russia’s Kalibr cruise missiles cost about $1 million each.