Russia's Deadly 'Kamikaze' Drones Compared to Ukraine's Unmanned Arsenal

The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was rocked on Monday by a series of explosions preceded by the low, humming buzz of more than two-dozen Russian "kamikaze" drones wreaking havoc on the cityscape.

The drones themselves—the Iranian-made Shahed-136—are a new entrant to the war, triangular in shape and with a wingtip-to-wingtip width of about 8 feet. First spotted in Ukraine in mid-September after primarily being deployed by Iranian forces in Yemen, the unmanned craft are also extremely hard to detect on radar, circling the skies until a target is locked-in and the drone, then, crashing to earth like a missile.

While seen by some as a lagging indicator of Russia's suspected scarcity of missiles and other arms in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the weapons are also highly disruptive—as evidenced by Monday's attacks—and introduce a new element to the aerial theater of the war. Russia had previously deployed smaller versions of kamikaze drones for use against smaller Ukrainian targets to mixed effect, while Ukraine itself was suspected of using similar weapons against Russian tanks and munitions.

The Shahed-136, however, is a little different. Russia's previously deployed ZALA KYB strike drone could remain airborne for up to 30 minutes, with a range of approximately 25 miles; the Iranian drones can fly more than 1,200 miles. They also have a significantly longer range than the inexpensive U.S.-made "Switchblade" kamikaze drones currently deployed by Ukraine, which can be launched from a backpack at a target up to 55 miles away.

Kamikaze Drone
Above, a kamikaze drone is seen on display at Joint Base Anacostia in Washington, D.C., on December 14, 2017. The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was rocked on Monday by a series of explosions preceded by the low, humming buzz of more than two-dozen Russian "kamikaze" drones wreaking havoc on the cityscape. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

There are tradeoffs, however. Though their payload is less than that of reusable drones employed by countries like Ukraine, which relies on the Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2, they are also much smaller, while costing a fraction of U.S.-made reusable drones like the MQ-9 Reaper. This makes the drones much harder to detect on radar, a benefit as both sides—Russia included—have improved the capability of its aerial defenses, allowing them to counter the previously devastating effectiveness of weapons like the TB2.

"You can use these dispensibly and because they'll ultimately destroy themselves, it's less of a concern whether they're shot down in the process," Sarah Kreps, an expert of drone warfare at Cornell University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told Newsweek. "Which raises the question of vulnerability. The larger the size, the more vulnerable they are to air defenses because they have a larger radar cross section. Smaller drones are more difficult to track and therefore more difficult to shoot down."

However, the not-too-big, not-too-small size of the Shahed-136 also impacts its performance, making them easier to shoot down using surface-air missiles or other munitions from the ground, the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense said last week, requiring the Russian military to use several of the drones at once in a "swarming" formation to ensure a successful attack.

Kreps added that the Iranian-made drones also appear to be less capable than the counterparts on which they are based. One example she named was the Iranian-made Shahed-191, which she said was an apparently reverse-engineered copy of the U.S.-made RQ-170 Sentinel.

"It's nowhere near as capable but doesn't have to be to benefit from being disruptive and keeping the enemy guessing," she told Newsweek.

The use of the Iranian-made drones also introduces a new geopolitical aspect to the war as officials in Kyiv and Washington D.C. have renewed charges of Iran offering direct aid to Russian forces, a seeming escalation of the war following regular denials by the Iranian government. Their use, Kreps said, could potentially change how both sides approach the supply-side of drones in the war at a time the U.S. has sought to avert escalating the conflict amid increasing nuclear rhetoric by Putin.

"Neither of these countries makes their own drones so they're reliant on what they've been able to receive from Turkey, the United States, or Iran," she said. "Countries like the United States have thus far restricted their drone assistance to the loitering munitions such as the Switchblade, responding to Russia's assertion that exporting drones would be escalatory, a comment that followed rumors that the U.S. might export the Reaper."

Kreps continued: "It's actually not clear why the Reaper would be escalatory when the TB-2 was not. But I think it speaks to the perceptions that leaders and countries have of these technologies, which I think are conditioned on how the U.S. used Reapers in its counterterrorism campaign the last decade."