Explainer: Russia Deploys Iranian Drones

What drones has Iran provided to Russia? How many? What are their capabilities? When did they arrive and how quickly did Russia begin to use them?

Iran has apparently provided at least two systems—the Shahed-136 and the Mohajer-6. The Shahed-136 can be described as a direct-attack munition, popularly known as a suicide drone because it explodes on impact. It is a crude and bargain-basement cruise missile with a small warhead, likely in the order of 25 to 30 kilograms (55 to 66 pounds). The Shahed-136 has a claimed maximum range of 2,500 kilometers (or 1,550 miles), but it is almost certainly being used for far shorter engagements. The Mohajer-6 is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that can carry small missiles and guided bombs. It has a range of up to 200 kilometers (or 125 miles) and can fly for up to 12 hours. It has the capacity to return to base after firing its payload.

Reflecting its urgent military needs, Russia used both types of drones, which are relatively simple to operate, soon after delivery in August, according to press reports. The Shahed-136, renamed the Geran-2 in Russian service, was in use no later than September and the Mohajer-6 by early October. Iran had provided Russia with "hundreds" of drones by mid-October, the Pentagon assessed.  

 

Why is Iran providing drones to Russia? Is it for economic reasons? Does it reflect a deepening alliance? Or both?

Putin and Raisi
Presidents Putin and Raisi

Iran has provided military systems to Russia for multiple reasons. The two have been allied elsewhere, notably propping up the Assad regime in Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011. Tehran may also see helping Russia as a way to secure future access to Russian war materiel. Russian combat aircraft are an obvious choice, for example, to replace some of the aging U.S. warplanes acquired by Iran more than 40 years ago.  

 

Why is Russia turning to Iran to acquire drones?

The Soviet Union had invested in developing and operating UAVs since the 1960s. But research and development as well as funding dried up after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the subsequent economic turmoil in Russia in the 1990s. In 2010, Russia acquired some Israeli Searcher II UAVs – renamed the Forpost in Russian service–as it tried to rebuild its own capacity. Turning to Iran in 2022 suggests that Moscow still has an inadequate domestic capability in drones. 

 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of suicide or kamikaze drones?

The current designs of direct-attack munitions – popularly known as kamikaze drones – are relatively inexpensive, simple in design, and easy to manufacture. The Iranian system may rely on satellite navigation for targeting information, which limits its accuracy. But a terminal seeker to provide guidance in the last stage of an engagement could also be introduced, albeit at additional cost and complexity. Individual munitions would be vulnerable to ground-based air defenses, but their low cost allows a military to use them in numbers – or swarms – against area targets.

Iranian Shahed-136 drones
Iranian Shahed-136 drones

 

Where has Russia deployed Iranian drones? Why there? How many (as of early October)? And what impact have they had on the battlefield?

The Shahed-136 and the Mohajer-6 provide Moscow with an additional way to attack ground targets that adds new challenges to Ukrainian air defenses. Russia has launched Shahed-136s at military positions. The drones have also struck civilian infrastructure. On September 13, Ukraine’s defence ministry claimed, for the first time, to have shot down a Shahed-136. The drone was downed in the north-eastern Kharkiv region. Ukraine’s air force later reported use of Shahed-136s in attacks on southern cities, including Odesa and Mykolaiv, as well as Bila Tserkva, a town 50 miles south of Kyiv. On October 6, Ukraine claimed to have downed 24 out of a total of 46 Shahed-136s fired by Russia.

On October 10, Russia reportedly launched some 24 Shahed-136s and 84 missiles at several cities across Ukraine, including Dnipro, Kyiv, Lviv, Vinnytsia, and Zaporizhzhia. The targets included energy facilities. The damage led to rolling blackouts in Kyiv and three other regions. At least 12 people were killed and dozens more were injured.

On October 17, Russia reportedly launched 47 Shahed-136s as well as missiles at Kyiv. Five drones hit the central part of the city and damaged energy facilities and a residential building, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. At least four people were killed.

 

How do Iran’s drones compare to the drones that the United States has provided Ukraine?

The United States has so far provided the Scan Eagle intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones to Kyiv. They are far smaller than the Mohajer-6.

 

Has Iran provided drones to other countries? Which ones? Have they been deployed anywhere?

Iran appears to have supplied UAVs to Venezuela. Other reports claim Tehran has supplied drones to the governments of Ethiopia and Sudan.

Has Iran provided drones to any of its proxies? What impact have the drones had on other battlefields?

Iran has provided UAVs and attack munitions for years to Hezbollah in Lebanon and more recently to the Houthi forces in Yemen’s civil war. Drones in Yemen have been used to attack targets in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Iran has also provided drones to Iraqi militias, which have used them in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces. Tehran has also transferred drone designs to Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinian group has deployed its homemade drones against Israel.

 

Douglas Barrie is senior fellow for military aerospace with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He previously worked as the London bureau chief for Aviation Week and Space Technology, European editor of Defense News, defense aviation editor for Flight International and deputy news editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly.

 

Photo Credits: Putin and Raisi via President.ir; Shahed-136 drones via IMA Media
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