Military briefing: Russia uses Iranian drones to ‘terrorize’ Ukraine

“Bitches,” shouted the Ukrainian soldier. He had just fired his Kalashnikov light machine gun at several drones flying low and slow over central Kyiv on Monday morning, and the telltale sound of their two-stroke engines identified them as the Iranian-made Shahed 136.

Other nearby troops also raised their rifles and took aim at the propeller-driven drones. Moments later, one fell onto a street in a ball of flames. Another went into a steep nosedive and exploded into an apartment building next to the headquarters of an energy company.

“All night and all morning the enemy terrorizes the civilian population. Kamikaze drones and missiles are attacking all of Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

Foreign-made drones were a feature of the war in Ukraine. First, Kyiv used Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar drones to devastating effect against Russian forces. After the Oct. 8 attack on the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia to the occupied Crimea, Ukrainian and Western defense officials say Moscow is increasingly turning to Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones like the Shahed-136 to target Ukrainian turn off targets.

As Kyiv was rocked by another round of drone strikes on Monday, Ukraine has repeatedly urged allies to deploy more robust air defense systems to protect its cities and vital infrastructure.

“These Iranian drones are basically cheap cruise missiles with long range and good accuracy. While they’re easier to shoot down, they’re cheap enough that you can use several to overwhelm air defenses,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East specialist at Janes, a defense intelligence agency.

Image shows the components of the Iranian Shahed-136 drone

Iran, which has the largest missile arsenal in the Middle East, has already supplied Russia with hundreds of Shahed-136 drones, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has said.

Last week Zelenskyy said Russia had ordered 2,400 more UAVs, which are made mostly of off-the-shelf components, can be programmed to fly automatically to a set of GPS coordinates and carry a powerful 30kg warhead. Iran on Monday repeated its denial that it would supply drones to Russia. The Kremlin has not commented on the use of UAVs, but said it uses precision weapons to hit its targets.

The ease of use of Iran’s drones and relatively low cost of about $20,000 each compared to over $4 million for a cruise missile means they can be deployed in swarms.

That makes it harder and more expensive for Ukraine’s limited air defense systems to stop them. Paired with the longer-range Mohajer-6 drone equivalent to a TB2, they can be used for long-range strikes behind enemy lines and instill fear among civilians.

Police officers fired on a Russian drone in Kyiv (Ukraine) in October
Police shoot at a Russian drone in Kyiv © Vadim Sarakhan/Reuters

“Only one drone needs to penetrate air defenses to hit the target,” said Binnie, who estimates Iran has manufactured several hundred of the Shahed-136 drones and still has ample supplies.

According to the Ukrainian military, it has destroyed 37 drones since Sunday evening, about 85 percent of the drones launched.

Still, reflecting the seriousness of the situation, the attacks destroyed a third of the country’s power infrastructure.

According to the Washington Post, Tehran is also reportedly ready to send Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles to Moscow.

Western officials believe Russia’s use of Iranian weapons demonstrated the depleted state of its own stockpile of precision weapons. Last week, top British spy Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s cyber agency GCHQ, said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces were in a “desperate” situation.

On the battlefield, these bottlenecks are evident in the recent increased use of surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles by Russian forces to take out land-based targets.

Russian Colonel Igor Ishuk recently told Russia’s TASS news agency that most of the country’s arms manufacturers “cannot meet” the army’s technical requirements for drones due to missing components.

Firefighters work on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine in October after a drone attack
Firefighters work on buildings in Kyiv after a drone attack © Roman Hrytsyna/AP

To stock up on missiles, Russia turned to Iran, which Putin visited in July. China was another possibility, but Beijing “was probably concerned that if it transferred this type of military technology, it would face severe sanctions and a very strong US response [to Russia]said Samuel Bendett, an adviser to the CNA think tank.

In contrast, “Iran has not only been able to manufacture its own line of UAVs, they have been doing so for decades and while under significant US sanctions,” he told the Gray Dynamics podcast.

Iran has a long history of military drone and missile operations. The US blamed the September 2019 strike that shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil production in Tehran.

“Russia is behind Iran in this particular area [of drone warfare]said Mehdi Bakhtiari, an Iranian defense expert. A Tehran-based political scientist added that the sanctions forced the Islamic Republic to focus on developing less sophisticated weapons like drones.

Iran and Russia have also long cooperated militarily, both intervening in the 2015 civil war in Syria to turn the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad’s favour.

A drone flies over Kyiv in October
A Russian drone flies over Kyiv © Sergey Shestak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Still, Iran has no direct involvement in the Ukraine conflict, said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow on Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank in London. Tehran also offered no clear support for Russia’s Sept. 23 annexation of four Ukrainian provinces.

But analysts said that apart from the welcome payments Tehran would receive for supplying the weapons, deeper cooperation with Moscow could now give Iran access to defense technologies such as Russia’s Su-35 fighter jets.

The fact that its weapons were being tested in Ukraine against Western defense systems was also a propaganda win that could boost arms sales.

“Iran might be hoping to get things like fighter jets, or maybe it wants to trade drones for wheat,” the Tehran-based analyst said. “However [the reason] This is an opportunity for Iran.” Military briefing: Russia uses Iranian drones to ‘terrorize’ Ukraine

Adam Bradshaw

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