Since making its debut in the Russian-Ukrainian War on September 13, the Iranian-supplied Shahed 136 delta wing drone has taken on a growing responsibility for strikes on Ukrainian targets as large scale deliveries by Iranian military affiliated aircraft continue. Most recently the aircraft have played a major role in strikes on targets in the city of Odessa, including a successful attack on the headquarters of a Ukrainian naval facility, with the numbers observed leading analysts to conclude that the quantities now in Russian service have grown considerably. Named the Geranium 2 in Russian service, the Shahed 136 is particularly prized for their anti radiation capabilities which are useful for air defence suppression, and home in on emissions from enemy ground based radars while having sufficient range to strike deep into Ukraine. The majority of strikes, however, appear to be on other kinds of military targets. The greater vulnerability of Ukrainian assets to the aircraft is expected to have a potentially significant psychological impact, with Russian combat jets aside from its Tu-22M bombers having played relatively limited roles.
The Shahed 136 is a single use asset designed to use its explosive laden body as a weapon, hence gaining them the name ‘kamikaze’ or ‘suicide’ drones as they are conceptually a hybrid between an unmanned aircraft and a cruise missile. The aircraft are considerably cheaper than cruise missiles which Russia has expended in considerable numbers, and with the country having plentiful funds from high oil prices they can provide a useful supplement to guided weapons supplied by Russia’s own defence sector. The possibility that the aircraft could neutralise large numbers of air defence sites particularly Ukraine’s older Soviet-built S-300 batteries may be key to ‘kicking down the door,’ as air defence suppression is often referred to, to allow Russian aircraft to operate more freely in Ukrainian airspace at higher altitudes. The fact that the bulk of Ukraine’s air defences are formed by short ranged handheld systems, however, means that the value of neutralising radar guided systems remains limited with the Shahed 136 expected to be prized more for the sheer firepower a fleet of them can bring to bear with high precision and at a low cost. The asset has increasingly compensated for Russia’s lack of stealth aircraft capable of braving Ukrainian air defences, absence of specialist air defence suppression aircraft and limited arsenal of standoff weapons.