Can Iranian Drones Turn Russia’s Fortunes in the Ukraine War?
Russia is targeting Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure with Iranian-made loitering munitions. Are these weapons effective in shaping the war?
What kind of drones is Iran providing Russia in its war in Ukraine?
Iran is providing loitering munitions, which are somewhere between precision-guided munitions, cruise missiles, and drones. The Iranian-produced Shahed-136 (renamed by Russia as the Geran-2) is a loitering munition, although it is sometimes misleadingly referred to in media as a kamikaze or suicide drone.
Loitering munitions started attracting more international attention after their successful use by Azerbaijan in 2020 in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, though the technology is decades old. These munitions get their name from their ability to “loiter” in the air after being deployed, waiting until a ground-based operator identifies an opportune moment to strike a target. Their ability to wait offers greater flexibility than more traditional, fire-and-forget precision munitions. Unlike drones, they are designed to be single-use weapons. (Operators can recall them mid-flight if conditions change and redeploy them later.) As a result, they typically carry relatively small payloads; the Shahed-136 is estimated to have a payload of about forty kilograms (eighty-eight pounds). Alternatively, they can fill a reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering role.
How have loitering munitions featured in the Ukraine war?
Air Power and Military Aircraft
Both sides have been using these weapons since early in the war, and in unprecedented numbers. Russia has been using its domestically produced loitering munitions, the KUB and Lancet. However, Western sanctions and supply issues have deprived Russia of critical components to produce these loitering munitions and other weaponry. These shortages might have driven Russia to seek Iranian-produced systems.
Estimates vary on how many Iranian drones Russia has acquired, ranging from 600 to more than 3,000. While this number might seem large, these munitions are often used in waves, so a supply of a few thousand can be depleted in a matter of days or weeks. Already, Russia is thought to have used a few hundred.
Iran has denied providing Russia with these weapons, despite growing evidence to the contrary, including analysis of destroyed Geran-2s that match the technical specifications of the Shahed-136. Intelligence agencies in the United States, United Kingdom (UK), and Ukraine report that Iran has promised to supply Russia with missiles and other weapons, and that there are Iranian troops present in Crimea. The Kremlin has echoed Iranian officials’ denials. However, a recent hot mic caught a Russian official conceding that the weapons were purchased from Iran.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has been using both domestically produced loitering munitions such as the RAM II and ST-35 Silent Thunder, in addition to U.S.-produced Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions. The latter weapon system was fast-tracked and tailored by the U.S. Air Force to meet Ukrainian requirements. As of August, more than 1,400 Phoenix Ghost units have been sent to Ukraine.
What capabilities do these munitions provide?
These precision munitions are increasingly sought by militaries, including Iran’s, because they are relatively inexpensive weapons, able to strike or stealthily surveil targets deep in enemy territory, and so reducing the risk to soldiers or larger military assets. However, whereas other countries have been able to purchase these higher-tech munitions from foreign sources, international sanctions have forced Iran to develop its own.
Air Power and Military Aircraft
But there are still unanswered questions about the specifications and capabilities of these Iranian-made systems. Iran is notorious for exaggerating or falsifying the capabilities of its weapons systems. Iran says the Shahed-136 has a range of more than 1,800 kilometers (1,118 miles)—which would in theory allow Russian forces to strike anywhere inside Ukrainian territory from well outside Ukraine’s borders. But compared to many other loitering munitions, the Shahed is larger, noisier, and appears to lack the ability to loiter for very long or change course midflight, making them easier for enemy forces to shoot down.
Whether the Russian military is opting to use these weapons in this way or it is a technical deficiency of the munitions remains unclear. Some analysts claim that Russia, in addition to redesignating the systems, has tweaked them to improve interoperability and performance.
Could loitering munitions change the course of the war?
Russia’s loitering munitions from Iran have had limited effects on the battlefield so far. Ukraine has had success jamming the guidance systems as well as shooting down these munitions with small arms, aerial defense systems, and other munitions. On October 12, British intelligence officials estimated that Ukraine had shot down about 60 percent of the Shahed-136 munitions. By October 20, the intercept rate had climbed to about 86 percent, they said.
As a result, the use of swarms of cheap munitions (which Ukrainian fighters have referred to as “mopeds” and “lawnmowers” for their buzzing sound and other characteristics) on energy infrastructure in densely populated areas might be a scare tactic, and an attempt to drive Ukraine to waste high-value systems in response. One analysis suggested that it only cost Russia around $18 million to launch a recent wave of drone attacks, while the cost to Ukraine to defend against them was estimated at around $28 million.
If Russia continues to use these weapons to target civilians, a major challenge for Ukraine will be to balance the spread of its air defenses between population centers and its fighting forces along the front lines. Iran could supply Russia with a more powerful loitering munition, the Arash-2, which Iran claims has an even greater range and payload. However, given that the Arash-2 is similar to the Shahed-136 in all other areas, and is estimated to be nearly double the size, it is likely to face many of the same vulnerabilities.