Kamikaze drones are the latest threat to Ukraine. Here’s what we know
Russia has launched a series of « kamikaze » drone attacks across Ukraine in recent weeks, striking civilian infrastructure and spreading terror in Ukrainian towns far from the frontlines of the war.
Ukraine’s government says Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Odessa, Zaporizhzhia and other cities have suffered a barrage of drone attacks and has pleaded with Western countries to step up aid in the face of the new challenge.
Drones have played an important role in the conflict since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, but their use has increased since Moscow acquired new drones from Iran during the summer.
The Ukrainians themselves have used suicide drones to strike Russian targets – and have asked their allies to supply them with more of these deadly weapons.
Here’s what we know about these drones.
Kamikaze drones, or suicide drones, are a type of aerial weapon system. They are known as « wandering munitions » because they are capable of circling for a period of time in an area identified as a potential target and only hitting once an enemy asset is identified.
They are small, portable and can be easily thrown, but their main advantage is that they are difficult to detect and can be fired from a distance.
The name « suicide bomber » refers to the fact that drones are disposable. Unlike more traditional, larger, and faster military drones that return to base after dropping missiles, kamikaze drones are designed to crash into a target and explode, detonating their warhead and destroying the drones in the process. They are smaller and easier to control than cruise missiles.
Ukraine’s military and US intelligence say Russia is using Iranian-made attack drones. US officials told CNN in July that Iran had begun presenting Shahed-series drones to Russia at Kashan airfield south of Tehran the previous month.
In August, US officials said Russia had purchased the drones and was training its forces to use them. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia has ordered 2,400 Shahed-136 drones from Iran.
Iran has denied supplying arms to Russia despite evidence to the contrary. Iranian Foreign Minister Nasser Kanaani’s spokesman was quoted by the official IRNA news agency on Monday as saying that « Iran has repeatedly declared that it is not a party to the war. between Russia and Ukraine and has not sent any weapons to either side ».
But Ukraine said its forces shot down one of the drones for the first time last month near the town of Kupyansk in Kharkiv. Other attacks have since been reported. The Kyiv army said on Wednesday it shot down 17 Shahed-136 drones that day alone. According to photos released by Ukrainian authorities, Russia has renamed the Shaheds and uses them as « Geran ».
US officials say there has already been « some evidence » that Iranian drones « have already had many failures » on the battlefield.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker told reporters late last month that « the idea that they represent a technological leap forward, frankly, we just don’t see a evidence in the data ».
Moscow also has its own suicide drones, made by Russian arms maker Kalashnikov Concern. Ukraine claimed on Wednesday that it shot down two of these ZALA Lancet drones that day.
Although relatively small, Shahed drones are capable of carrying missiles and have a payload of around 50 kilograms (110 pounds). This means that they can inflict significant damage.
Retired Australian Army Major General Mick Ryan told CNN that drones are « generally of limited use against military targets that require precision ».
« So the Russians are using these fairly unsophisticated drones against large targets like cities. As you mention, these attacks have no military utility, this is about Putin satisfying the hardliners in Russia, they were ecstatic last week after the missile attacks and probably will be after these,” he said.
Drone attacks can have a major impact on the civilian population. Zelensky accused Moscow of using them to sow terror among civilians.
“All night and all morning, the enemy terrorizes the civilian population. Drones and kamikaze missiles are attacking all over Ukraine,” he said on Monday.
As air raid sirens sounded across the capital, many people spent hours hiding in basements, metro stations and bomb shelters, as schools returned to online education.
In a statement released last week, the International Red Cross denounced the use of drones, saying the use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes mental and psychological harm as well as life-threatening injuries.
Ukraine has been asking its allies for air defense systems since the war began in February, but the need has become more urgent since Russia began using Iranian-made drones.
Air defense systems were one of the top three priorities on a Ukrainian arms wish list presented at a meeting of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group in Brussels on Wednesday, according to a document given to ministers of defense. Defense attending the meeting.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters after Wednesday’s meeting that the United States and its allies must provide Ukraine with air defense systems so that the Ukraine can help defend its airspace against attacks by Russian forces. .
« A lot of countries have Patriot, a lot of countries have other systems, there’s a whole host of Israeli systems that are quite capable, the Germans have systems like we mentioned, so a lot of countries that were here today have a wide variety of systems, » says Milley.
« The task will be to collect them, to deploy them, to train them, because each of these systems is different, to ensure that they can be linked to a command and control and communication system and to ensure that they have radars that can talk to each other so that they can acquire targets on incoming flights.
The air defenses Ukraine needs to counter suicide drones are different from the systems used against cruise missiles and similar weapons. The Patriot Air Defense Missile System – which stands for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target” – is designed to counter and destroy incoming short-range ballistic missiles, as well as advanced aircraft and cruise missiles, and could be used against drones.
Ukrainian officials said the Ukrainian Air Defense Forces were already destroying the « bulk » of the Shahed drones. Ukraine’s military commander, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, on Tuesday tweeted his thanks to Poland as « brothers in arms » for forming an air defense battalion which he said had destroyed nine of the 11 Shaheds. He said Poland had provided Ukraine with « systems » to help destroy the drones.
Last month, it was reported that the Polish government had purchased advanced Israeli equipment (Israel has a policy of not selling « advanced defensive technology » to Kyiv) and then transferred it to Ukraine.
Zelensky made another plea for more air defense capabilities on Thursday, saying Kyiv only has about 10% of what it needs to fight attacks from Moscow.
The Ukrainian military uses RAM II suicide drones, which were developed by a consortium of Ukrainian companies and purchased with money funded by ordinary Ukrainians. These precision-guided munitions can carry 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) warheads and have a flight range of up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), manufacturers say.
But Kyiv also relies on its allies for the supply of drones. The United States has sent several types of air weapon systems to Ukraine. These include Switchblade drones – small, handheld kamikaze drones that can carry a warhead and explode on impact. The Switchblade 300 and the larger Switchblade 600 are produced by the American defense company AeroVironment.
The smaller Switchblade 300 can hit a target up to 6 miles (9.6 kilometers), according to specs provided by the company, while the larger Switchblade 600 can hit over 20 miles (32 kilometers). Both systems can be configured and launched in minutes.
In May, the United States sent the Ukrainian army « phantom phoenix » drones, which are said to be similar to Switchblade, although little is known about their capabilities.
The UK has also supplied Ukraine with stray munitions, including 850 hand-launched Black Hornet micro drones.
Ukraine also uses Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. These have become a kind of symbol of Ukrainian resistance. However, these are larger and designed to return home after dropping bombs or laser-guided missiles.