Putin's Kamikaze Drones Are Proving Less Effective Than He Expected

Kamikaze drones supplied to Russia from its ally Iran are having a devastating effect on Ukraine—but the weapons are nowhere near as deadly as Vladimir Putin will have hoped, a military expert tells Newsweek.

The drones rained down from Ukrainian skies once more on Monday morning, battering Kyiv and its residents. Terrifying photos taken by a photographer working for Agence France-Presse showed one low-flying drone soaring overhead as it headed to destroy a target, with further pictures capturing the destruction and fires that ripped through the city afterwards.

Calls have mounted for sanctions against Iran, which continues to deny supplying drones to the Russian military.

A week ago, the Ukrainian capital was hit by Russian missiles during rush hour, part of nationwide attacks apparently targeting civilians. In the latest bombardment, which mirrored last week's attack, drone strikes began at 06:30 a.m. on Monday and continued through the rush hour to apparently target civilians and students making their way to work or school. Last week's attacks left 19 dead across various cities. So far at least four people are confirmed dead in this Monday's attack, although the death toll may continue to rise. Further attacks followed on Tuesday morning.

Some European countries, including ministers from France and Germany, have demanded new sanctions against Iran for apparently supplying the drones. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would investigate Tehran's role in the conflict after evidence mounted that the country had supplied the equipment. But Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanani said: "We have not supplied any weapons to the sides of the Ukraine war." He added that Iran was not a "party in the war."

"Kamikaze" was a phrase used to describe Japanese suicide bombing missions in World War Two. The word is now being applied to Iran's Shahed-136 (un-piloted) drones, which are laden with explosives and destroyed upon impact. They are usually sent out in waves and are hard to spot on radar.

Iran is believed to have trained Russians on how to use the drones in July, with the drones being collected in August from Iran and flown in cargo planes back to Russia, according to CNN.

But analysts say that despite the tragic deaths and terrible costs being wreaked by the weapons, the drones are not proving as deadly as Russia would have anticipated.

Military expert and veteran Sean Spoonts, editor-in-chief of military news outlet SOFREP.com, tells Newsweek that the drones were "easy to shoot down." That factor "is why Russia is using them on civilian targets that are relatively undefended as opposed to military targets," he said.

But he added that, from a purely operational standpoint, the drones were little better than duds.

"The drones we have seen in use are the Shahed-136s, which the Russians call the Geranium-2. It carries a 40lb charge, so it's pretty light in terms of being able to do damage," he said. "As we understand things, 5 recently hit Kyiv killing 4 and wounding an unknown number. The Russians attacked with more than 100 of these drones in recent days. The Ukrainian Air Force says they shot down more than half of them. Given the sheer number launched and the limited damage and loss of life, we would not assess them to be very effective as a weapon at this point. It also points to the lack of conventional cruise missiles in the Russian inventory to shoot at Ukraine's civilian centers."

Kamikaze drone hits Kyiv
A police officer tapes off the explosion site in Kyiv, Ukraine, after a Russian attack using kamikaze drones on October 17. Getty Images

Iranian-made drones are simply not as effective as ones used by the West, he said, in terms of sensors and weapon payloads. He added: "U.S. drones are far superior in quality. We have our own suicide drones under the name 'Switchblade' that are probably more effective than the Shahed type and can be carried in a backpack. The Shahed comes on a launcher system with six drones on it. Ours are smaller, harder to detect, or take over by electronic means, and can operate at night."

Spoonts believes that Russia's attacks using Iranian drones will result in more aid and weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, being sent to Ukraine by the U.S. and other allies. He predicts the drone attacks "will come and go as Russia expends these drones and then gets new supplies from Iran." And he suspects Ukrainian forces will now "go hunting" for the small, portable signal relay towers that need to be set up to guide the drones to their targets, so they can take them out. Targeting drone operators would also prove an effective tactic to deal with these attacks, he added, because "it takes some weeks to train these drone operators and if Ukraine targets them it can hamper these attacks considerably."

Spoonts' comments to Newsweek echo statements made previously by analysts in the West, who had played down the efficacy of the Iranian kamikazes. U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker told CNN the drones had suffered "numerous failures" on the battlefield. Speaking at the end of last month, and Baker added: "I think that the idea that they represent some technological leap ahead, frankly, we're just not seeing borne out in the data."

The British government also dismissed fears over drones, with officials describing them as "slow" and easy to shoot down on October 12. "These UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] are slow and fly at low altitudes, making lone aircraft easy to target using conventional air defenses," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said. "There is a realistic possibility that Russia has achieved some success by attacking with several UAVs at the same time... [But the Shahed-136 are] unlikely to be satisfactorily fulfilling the deep strike function... With Russian tactical combat jets still achieving limited effect over Ukrainian territory, the lack of a reliable, sustainable and accurate operational-level strike capability is likely one of Russia's most significant capability gaps in Ukraine."

The comments were made two days after Ukraine had been attacked with waves of bombardment in mass airstrikes across the country last Monday, meaning those attacks had been taken into account.

But some experts fear that Iran now plans to hand over even more sophisticated weapons to Russia.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S. defense and foreign affairs think-tank, has been publishing analysis reports since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine back in February. On Saturday, ISW published a report that warned: "Russia may have signed a new contract with Iran for the supply of Arash-2 drones. Ukrainian and Russian Telegram channels reported 'leaked' information from unspecified Iranian sources that Russia has purchased an unknown number of Arash-2 drones, which are purportedly faster and more destructive than the Shahed-136 drones that are currently in use by Russian forces...

"Reports that Moscow is continuing to rely on Tehran for destructive munitions are consistent with a report from the US Treasury Department that suggests Russia is rapidly expending its supply of microelectronics that are critical for the military-industrial complex because it cannot replace key components unavailable because of sanctions."

But even Russia's use of the more sophisticated Arash-2 drones seems set to prove no more effective than the kamikaze ones Putin's forces have used so far.

"Russia will likely continue to leverage its relationship with Iran to circumvent sanctions, although it is very unlikely that Russian forces will use the Arash-2 to any greater effect than they have used the Shahed-136 model," ISW concluded.

Newsweek has reached out to Russia's Foreign Ministry and Ukraine's Ministry of Defense for comment.