Russia has used more than 400 Iranian suicide drones to target civilians in Ukraine

The Kremlin has nearly exhausted its initial supply of Iranian “suicide” drones and is having to eke out its stock of the munitions being used to target vital infrastructure in Ukrainian towns and cities, according to a new study.

An analysis of Russian attacks using the Shahed-136 “loitering munitions” supplied by Tehran suggests that 414 out of up to 479 of the drones previously delivered to Moscow have now been used, with the Iranians only slowly replenishing supplies at a rate of 300 of the weapons per consignment.

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The study by Kyiv-based research group Molfar, which is based on open-source intelligence, including records of the timings and locations of attacks since the Iranian drones were first used in mid-September, suggests Ukrainian forces are now intercepting more than eight out of 10 of the noisy drones, dubbed “flying lawnmowers of death”.

The Kremlin, which embarked on a series of vicious air attacks on Ukrainian civilian energy and water infrastructure last month, is believed by Western intelligence to have entered into a rolling programme of deals to bolster its dwindling stocks of missiles and drones by buying Iranian weaponry.

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Smoke rises after a Russian drones strike, which local authorities consider to be Iranian made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Shahed-136, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine October 17, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Smoke rises after a Russian drones strike on Kyiv in October. (Photo: Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

The Shahed-136 has the ability to change course and “loiter” over targets before exploding, but is generally used by Russian forces directly as a flying bomb.

It is unclear just how many of the drones the Kremlin has in reserve but the rate of strikes has fallen markedly in the past fortnight, suggesting that supplies are running low. Moscow is believed by Kyiv to have placed an order for 2,400 drones but is receiving the weapons in consignments.

The Molfar study said: “Russia has used approximately 414 drones and our calculations based on open sources shows 460 to 479 Shahed-136s were delivered from Iran to Russia. The rest of the [2,400] drones have not yet been delivered – supply is carried out in batches of 300, which are immediately put into use.”

A Western security source added: “It appears strongly that the Russian military is having to restrict the numbers of drones and other precision munitions it is using because of supply issues. This is assessed to apply both to weapons produced domestically and being sourced from Iran.”

The source added, however, that supplies from Tehran are expected to increase in the coming weeks.

A police officer inspects parts of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), what Ukrainian authorities consider to be an Iranian made suicide drone Shahed-136, at a site of a Russian strike on fuel storage facilities, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kharkiv, Ukraine October 6, 2022. REUTERS/Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy
A police officer inspects parts of Shahed-136 drone after an attack on a fuel storage facility in Kharkiv (Photo: Vyacheslav/Reuters)

An investigation by i has uncovered at least 70 flights by sanctioned Iranian aircraft suspected of carrying weapons supplies to Moscow since the Ukraine war began on 24 February. According to American intelligence sources, senior Russian generals were given a personal display of the capabilities of Tehran’s weaponry this summer and placed an order for the 2,400 drones, amid rapidly deepening ties between Moscow and Iran.

Washington has said it believes the Kremlin is preparing to receive additional Iranian weaponry including short-range ballistic missiles likely to be wanted by Moscow to resume its targeting of infrastructure in major towns and cities. It has been suggested that imminent Iranian deliveries will include a more advanced jet-powered loitering munition, the Arash 2.

Intelligence sources in Ukraine told the Kyiv Independent a delivery of 200 drones will arrive at the Russian port of Astrakhan after being ferried across the Caspian Sea.

They believe Russia also plans to buy Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from Iran – marking yet another escalation in the conflict. The Fateh-110, which means “conqueror” in Persian, and the Zolfaghar both carry a warhead of 1,000lbs and could prove a difficult target for Ukraine’s air defences.

Molfar said its analysis suggested Ukrainian forces were now intercepting 82 per cent of the Iranian drones using methods ranging from the use of advanced German anti-aircraft systems to simply firing automatic weapons as the Shahed-136s, identified by their noisy “chainsaw-like” engines, pass overhead.

Russia is unleashing successive waves of the Iranian-made Shahed drones over Ukraine.
Russia has unleashed successive waves of the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones over Ukraine. (Source: AP)

In one incident over the southern city of Mykolaiv last week, it was claimed that every drone in a salvo of 20 was destroyed by Ukrainian air defence systems. The research group said it had also been able to track 50 launches of Shahed-136 drones from Belarus following reports that Russia had begun siting the weapons on the territory of its close ally.

But the study showed the success in downing the drones is coming at considerable cost to Ukraine. While it costs Russia between $20,000 and $50,000 (£17,000 and £42,000) to launch each drone, it is calculated that the systems being used by Kyiv – from fighter jets to Stinger missiles – mean it costs anywhere between $190,000 and $490,000 (£160,000 and £410,000) to intercept each drone.

Molfar said its analysis emphasised the need for further Western military aid to bolster Ukraine’s air defences, particularly when it is costing some $22m (£19m) to replace each power station facility destroyed by the Russian bombardments. The report said: “We can say firmly and confidently [that] Ukraine needs more air defence systems. They are the most effective weapon in the fight against drones.”

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