October 18, 2022 | FDD's Long War Journal

Iranian Shahed-136 Drones Increase Russian Strike Capacity and Lethality in Ukraine

October 18, 2022 | FDD's Long War Journal

Iranian Shahed-136 Drones Increase Russian Strike Capacity and Lethality in Ukraine

Russia has conducted dozens of strikes against civilian and critical infrastructure targets across Ukraine over the past week, including with the Shahed-136 loitering munition. While the Shahed-136 is unlikely to change the overall direction of the conflict, it has increased Russia’s long-range strike capacity as Moscow’s traditional missile stocks dwindle. It also provides some additional capability and capacity against frontline Ukrainian positions, likely offering greater lethality than Russia’s indigenously produced loitering munitions.

Moscow is behind the curve in developing drones and is now racing to catch up. While the Russian military fields various UAVs for combat and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles, insufficient capacity has undermined Russia’s war effort in Ukraine. To help redress this weakness, Moscow turned to Tehran, which began pouring resources into its drone program in the 1980s and has since emerged as a regional UAV power and serial proliferator.

Back in July, the White House warned that Iran was “preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs, on an expedited timeline.” Declassified U.S. intelligence indicated Tehran showcased various drones to Russian delegations in June and early July and began training Russian operators later that month. In mid-August, Russian cargo aircraft allegedly began picking up scores of Iranian drones, while Tehran dispatched advisors to Russia, and allegedly even into occupied Ukrainian territories, to help the Russians get going. The Russians reportedly began testing the Shahed-136 in Ukraine in August, and visual evidence of its employment in Ukraine first surfaced in mid-September.

In addition to the Shahed-136, Russia has also employed its smaller cousin, the Shahed-131, along with the Mohajer-6 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). U.S. and allied officials initially indicated Moscow was interested primarily in Iran’s Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 UCAVs. So far, neither has been visually confirmed to be in Russia’s possession, although a Ukrainian military report indicated Russia had received the Shahed-129. Unlike with Russia’s indigenously produced drones, Moscow is not releasing propaganda videos starring its new Iranian-supplied arsenal, so open sources may not present a full picture of which systems Russia has received or how it is using them.

Open-source evidence indicates Russia is using the Shahed-136, which Moscow has styled as the “Geran-2,” primarily for long-range strikes against predetermined static targets. In this way, the Russians are essentially using the Shahed-136 to compensate for their dwindling supply of cruise missiles. The Shahed-136 carries a much smaller warhead — 40 kg, according to Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force Command, versus 450 kg on Russia’s Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile, for example. But it is also far cheaper and therefore more numerous, costing thousands rather than hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per munition.

One of the advantages of propeller-powered drones such as the Shahed-136 is the efficiency of their engines, which allows them to travel long distances and loiter above potential targets despite their small size. Estimates of the Shahed-136’s maximum range vary. Claims go as high as 2,500 km and as low as several hundred kilometers. Ignat claimed its range is 1,000 km, which tracks with an investigation by Ukrainian experts who studied a downed Shahed-131 (essentially a smaller version of the Shahed-136) and estimated its range at 900 km. Assuming that 1,000 km figure is roughly accurate, Russia can use the Shahed-136 to strike anywhere in Ukraine from the relative safety of Crimea or Belarus, as well as other occupied parts of Ukraine.

The Shahed-136 can be fired from a mobile, truck-mounted launcher, making it difficult to detect and neutralize “left of launch.” The loitering munition is also difficult to detect by radar, thanks to its small size, low altitude and speed, and ability to change direction in flight and attack weak spots in air defense coverage. The Ukrainians have achieved some success in downing them with surface-to-air missiles and even small-arms fire. But in sufficient numbers, the Shahed-136 can overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses, particularly at night, when Ukrainian troops have a harder time visually acquiring the munition. Russia reportedly is using the loitering munitions in pairs, with one flying above the other to serve as a back-up if the lower one is downed. If the first munition is successful, the second can be directed toward a different target.

In addition to conducting long-range strikes, accounts from Ukrainian servicemembers suggest Russia has also employed the Shahed-136 against frontline targets, such as Ukrainian armored vehicles and artillery positions. However, the Shahed-136 appears to lack a camera, meaning the Russians are likely using other drones, such as the Mohajer-6 or Russia’s Orlan-series UAVs, along with special operations forces, to scout targets. The Shahed-136 can likely receive in-flight targeting updates, speeding up the kill chain and allowing the munition to adjust mid-flight if the target repositions. While the Shahed-136’s apparent reliance on commercial-grade GNSS navigation reduces precision, its relatively large warhead — far bigger than those on Russia’s Lancet or KUB loitering munitions — can help compensate.

Using the Mohajer-6 as a relay would also increase the range at which the operator can control the Shahed-136. Otherwise, the loitering munition, which communicates with the ground control station via radio (rather than satellite), would lose contact with the station after only a few dozen kilometers when flying at a low altitude to avoid detection. With that additional reach, the Shahed-136’s control range can far exceed that of the Lancet or KUB.

However, the Shahed-136 has not enabled Russia to counter the Western-supplied rocket artillery systems wreaking havoc against the Russian rear, as some Russian commentators hoped and some Ukrainian officials and Western analysts feared. Ukraine’s HIMARS and MLRS rocket artillery systems likely “shoot and scoot” too quickly for the GNSS-dependent Shahed-136 to strike. Some have asserted the munition may contain an infrared sensor, which would allow it to home in on vehicles, but the remains of downed Shahed-136s offer no proof of such a sensor. Moreover, despite receiving Iranian UAVs, Russia may still suffer from a shortage of UAVs that can conduct reconnaissance at sufficient ranges to hunt the rocket artillery systems.

Likewise, there has been no clear evidence that the Shahed-136 possesses an anti-radiation capability, which would enable it to home in on radar emitters. Such a capability would pose a grave danger to Ukrainian ground-based air defenses, which have hamstrung the Russian Air Force. But the Shahed-131 studied by the Ukrainian experts did not have an anti-radiation seeker, and images of Shahed-136s downed in Ukraine do not appear to show one, either. It is possible that there are variants of the Shahed-136 that have infrared or anti-radiation capabilities, but such models have not been publicly recorded in Ukraine.

On balance, the Shahed-136 has not proven to be a game-changer for Moscow, but it does provide additional precision-strike capacity and capability. Eventually, however, Russian stocks will need replenishment. Reports from the Ukrainian military indicate Russia has already expended well over 100 of these munitions and had around 300 left as of October 14. Last week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claimed Moscow hopes to buy 2,400 more Shahed-136s, while The Washington Post on Sunday cited unnamed officials as saying Iran is preparing to send Russia “dozens” more Mohajer-6s and an unspecified larger number of Shahed-136s. Whether Tehran can quickly supply that many remains to be seen.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program. Ryan Brobst is a research analyst at FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Military and Political Power Russia Ukraine