How Iran’s ‘kamikaze’ Shahed drones are being used in Ukraine

How Iran’s ‘kamikaze’ Shahed drones are being used in Ukraine

Major Ilya Yevlash said he cannot remember one day without the sound of suspected Iranian “kamikaze” drones wreaking havoc in his country.

Since August 2022, Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russia have had to contend with so-called Shahed drones: a technology that, when launched, “destroys everything,” according to Yevlash, the spokesman of Ukraine’s Air Force.

“If a Shahed hits an old building where there are a lot of people, they will totally destroy it,” Yevlash told Euronews Next.

Shahed drones were used once again when Iran launched more than 300 missiles at Israel last week in what many saw as a retaliatory attack for a presumed Israeli strike earlier this month that destroyed part of Iran’s embassy in Damascus, Syria and killed several Iranian officials.

“The sounds of Shahed drones, a tool of terror, is the same in the skies over the Middle East and Europe,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote in a statement on X (formerly Twitter) after the first missiles were launched between Israel and Iran last week.

“This sound must serve as a wake-up call to the free world, demonstrating that only our unity and resoluteness can save lives and prevent the spread of terror worldwide,” he added.

What are Shahed drones?

Shahed drones are single-use, long-range attack drones or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV), according to John Hardie, the deputy director of the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies’ Russia programme.

It’s a type of loitering munition with a built-in warhead that will stay around an area until an operator, often on the ground, picks a target to detonate.

There are a few types of Shahed drones being used by Russia in Ukraine, like the Shahed-136 and 131, the earlier models developed by Iran, according to Ukrainian media, citing a government report.

The Russians are said to have renamed the drone the Geran-2 for its use in Ukraine but it’s unclear how many they have.

An unclassified US intelligence report studied the debris of an Iranian drone found in Ukraine and one in the Middle East and found that they “appear to be very similar”.

The Shahed-136, the bigger of the two drones, has a relatively small payload at roughly 40 kg.

So, Hardie said the model isn’t particularly sophisticated but can still inflict damage.

“It’s useful for providing strikes on the cheap,” he said. “It has been useful for Russia in destroying critical infrastructure and air defence.”

On the cheap, according to Hardie, means the Russians are likely paying $50,000 (€47,000) per unit, while a report in the New York Times, citing experts, says they can cost as low as $20,000 (€18,000).

‘Exhausting’ Ukraine’s air defences

Hardie said Ukraine started seeing Shahed drones on the frontline as early as August or September 2022. This timeline is confirmed by several media reports at the time, which report the first attack as being in Kyiv, killing four people.

A US Intelligence report also said that in mid-2022 “Iran provided Russia with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to sustain Moscow’s ability to attack Ukraine after severely depleting its own stores of precision-guided munitions in the war’s opening months”.

The Russians are deploying the drones in groups and taking them in different directions in an effort to “exhaust” Ukraine’s air defence system, Yevlash with the Ukrainian Air Force said.

“They might use this drone for five days and [on] day six, they launch another type of drone,” he said.

Yuriy Ihnat, formerly with the Ukrainian Air Force, told the Kyiv Independent that the Shahed drones normally attack along riverbeds and roads because it is harder for Ukraine’s anti-aircraft radar to pick up their flight over the water. The sound of the drones also gets washed out by the sound of cars passing, he continued.

Over time, Yevlash said the country has developed different radars to track how the drones are crossing through their airspace at any time. Then, a “mobile fire group” will use lasers and stingers to shoot down the drones.

Yevlash said nearly all of the drones deployed by Russia are demolished by the Ukrainian army.

Because the drones travel between 200 to 300 kph, Yevlash said it's “much easier” to track than other weapons.

Drones a symbol of a ‘deepening’ Iran-Russia relationship

The Shahed drone is the “most significant” contribution made by Iran to the Russian military because of the amount of damage that they’re able to inflict, Hardie said.

While the Iranians have denied sending or manufacturing drones for Russia, the US and EU have placed sanctions on Iranian entities, saying that the country did provide Russia with drones.

“Iran's Revolutionary Guards have been providing Russia with Shahed drones to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statementlast year.

Hardie said that in general “the relationship has deepened since Russia’s full-scale invasion” with Russia turning to Iran for other military assistance as well.

Initially, Iran would send the drone parts to Russia, where they would have to be assembled and then deployed on the frontlines, Hardie continued.

There are also reports the Iranians helped Russia to develop their own factories to build them locally. The Washington Post reported in August 2023 based on leaked documents that the goal is for Russia to produce 6,000 drones inside the country’s borders by 2025.

They will be able to do so thanks to a “billion-dollar arms deal” with Tehran, the report continued.