Newly deployed Iranian-built Shahed 136 delta wing drones have begun to take a significant toll on Ukrainian forces, with the Wall Street Journal being among several sources to report “serious damage” citing reports from Ukrainian officers. The aircraft – renamed Geranium 2 in Russian service – have been used primarily in the Kharkiv region where advancing Ukrainian forces on open ground have presented vulnerable targets for Russian strikes using a wide range of assets. Western analysts have compared the drones to the HIMARS rocket artillery systems supplied to Ukraine by the United States in the impact they are having, with from the Red Six Solutions LLC strategic consultancy founder Scott Crino stressing that the drones “undoubtedly changing the operational plans of Kyiv.” He emphasised that Ukrainian forces struggled to defend against drone strikes, which were particularly dangerous against radar and artillery systems, stressing that “once a Shahed locks onto target, it will be hard to stop.” This has contrasted to the Western and Turkish supplied drones used by Ukraine, which Ukrainian officers have repeatedly claimed are near useless for striking Russian positions.
Iran’s drone industry is considered third only to those of China and the United States in terms of the capabilities of its products, contrasting with the less advanced state of most of the country’s defence sector, with its unmanned aircraft having been extensively combat tested against a range of targets across Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria. Iran is one of just three countries to have operationalised flying wing stealth drones, which have proven highly survivable in combat against Israeli air defences and made a strong impression on Israeli officials in the past. These higher end aircraft are speculated to potentially be set for delivery to Russia in future. A spike in Russian oil revenues and the need to expand its drone arsenal quickly to counter the vast quantities of armaments and personnel pouring into Ukraine from the Western world means that the Russian-Ukrainian War could present a ludicrous opportunity for Iran’s drone industry, and potentially for the export of other weapons systems such as ballistic missiles or artillery shells. Supplying Russia nevertheless brings with it risks for Iran, including potentially depleting the country’s weapons caches and allowing Western adversaries to develop possible countermeasures to its unmanned aircraft.