Russia’s new wea.pons pose a major challenge to Ukraine

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Russia is increasingly using sui.cide drones to conduct massive ra.ids on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, creating a new challenge for Kiev.

The drone was launched during an Iranian military exercise.

UAVs have played an important role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the frequency of use of these wea.pons has increased since Moscow bought kamikazes from Iran, forcing Kiev to ask its allies for more aid to boost its combat capabilities.

Kyiv said Moscow has used Iranian-supplied kamikaze drones in strikes against Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Odesa, Zaporizhzhia and other cities across Ukraine in recent weeks, and pleaded with Western countries to step up their assistance in the face of the new challenge.

“The fact that they are trying to use these drones [to strike] critical infrastructure facilities, leaving us without water, heat and power, is in line with the tactical and technical characteristics and purpose of these kamikaze drones, which work like matches. [The drone] ignites the target and destroys it by [starting] a fire rather than through an explosion. That’s why they try to use these drones [to attack] infrastructure targets: because [they have less] impact in places where people gather,” Nataliia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Operational Command Pivden (south) said.

UAV  have played a significant role in the conflict since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, but their use has increased since Moscow acquired the new drones from Iran over the summer.

The Ukrainians themselves have been using kamikaze drones to strike against Russian targets – and asked their allies to supply them with more of these deadly wea.pons.

What are kamikaze drones?

Kamikaze drones, or sui.cide drones, are a type of aerial wea.pon system. They are known as a loitering munition because they are capable of waiting for some time in an area identified as a potential target and only strike once an enemy asset is identified.

They are small, portable and can be easily launched, but their main advantage is that they are hard to detect and can be fired from a distance.

The name “kamikaze” refers to the fact that drones are disposable. They are designed to hit behind the enemy lines and are destroyed in the attack – unlike the more traditional, larger and faster military drones that return home after dropping missiles.

The Ukrainian military and US intelligence say Russia is using Iranian-made attack drones. US officials told CNN in July that Iran had begun showcasing Shahed series drones to Russia at Kashan Airfield south of Tehran the previous month. The drones are capable of carrying precision-guided missiles and have a payload of approximately 50 kilograms (110 pounds). 

In August, US officials said Russia had bought these drones and was training its forces how to use them. According to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia has ordered 2,400 Shahed-136 drones from Iran.

Ukraine claimed its forces had shot down one of these drones for the first time last month near the city of Kupyansk in Kharkiv. There have been more reported attacks since then. Kyiv’s military said Wednesday it had downed 17 Shahed-136 drones that day alone. According to photos released by Ukrainian authorities, Russia has rebranded the Shaheds and is using them under the name of “Geran.”

US officials say there has been “some evidence already” that the Iranian drones “have already experienced numerous failures” on the battlefield. 

US Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker told reporters late last month that “the idea that they represent some technological leap ahead, frankly we’re just not seeing borne out in the data.” 

Russia also has its own kamikaze drones, made by the wea.pons manufacturer Kalashnikov Concern. Ukraine claimed on October 12 it had shot down two of these ZALA Lancet drones that day.

How can Ukraine defend itself against these drones?

Ukraine has been asking its allies for air defense systems since the beginning of the war in February, but the need has become more urgent since Russia started using Iranian-made drones. 

Air defense systems were one of the top three priorities on a Ukrainian wea.pons wish list presented during a Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting in Brussels on October 12, according to a handout provided to defense ministers participating in the gathering.

A house in Kiev was destro.yed after a Russian drone attack on October 5

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters after the meeting on Wednesday that the US and its allies needed to provide Ukraine with air defense systems in order for Ukraine to help defend its airspace against incoming attacks from Russian forces.

The air defenses Ukraine needs to combat kamikaze drones are different from the systems that are used against cruise missiles and similar wea.pons. 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 that Ukrainian air defense forces were already taking down the “bulk” of the Shahed drones. Ukraine’s senior military commander, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, tweeted on October 11, his thanks to Poland as “brothers in arms” for training an air defense battalion that he said had destroyed nine of 11 Shaheds. He said Poland had given Ukraine “systems” to help destroy the drones. 

In September, there were reports that the Polish government had bought advanced Israeli equipment (Israel has a policy of not selling “advanced defensive technology” to Kyiv) and was then transferring it to Ukraine.

Zelensky made another plea for more air defense capacities on October 13, saying Kyiv has only about 10% of what it needs to combat Moscow’s attacks.

Does Ukraine have kamikaze drones too?

The Ukrainian military has been using RAM II kamikaze drones, which were developed by a consortium of Ukrainian companies and bought with money crowdfunded by ordinary Ukrainians. These precision-guided loitering munitions can carry 3 kilogram (6.6 pound) warheads and have a flight range of up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), according to the manufacturers.

But Kyiv has also been relying on its allies for drone supplies. The US has sent several types of aerial wea.pon systems to Ukraine. These include Switchblade drones – small, portable kamikaze drones that can carry a warhead and detonate on impact. The Switchblade 300 and the larger Switchblade 600 are produced by American defense company AeroVironment.

 The smaller Switchblade 300 can hit a target up to 6 miles away (9.6 kilometers), according to specifications provided by the company, while the larger Switchblade 600 can strike more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. Both systems can be set up and launched within minutes.

In May, the US sent the Ukrainian military “phoenix ghost” drones, which are believed to be similar to Switchblade, although little is known about their capabilities.

The UK has also provided Ukraine with loitering munitions, including 850 hand-launched Black Hornet micro-drones.

Ukraine has also been using Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones. These have become something of a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance. However, these are larger and designed to return home after dropping laser-guided bombs or missiles.

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