- This week, Russia struck deep into Ukraine and hit the capital, Kyiv, with kamikaze drones.
- These small and noisy airborne devices are designed to strike at a distance.
- They are nimble enough to avoid many air-defense systems.
The kamikaze drones used by Russia are believed to be imported from Iran. They “are both military weapons and psychological weapons,” said Samuel Bendett, a Russian-military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA. But drone attacks have already become a regular feature of the war in Ukraine, with both sides using the deadly aircraft in different ways.
About Kamikaze Drones
The drones that Russia has been deploying, Ukrainian and U.S. officials say, are manufactured in Iran, where they are known as Shahed-136s. The drones are part of a category of weapon known as loitering munitions — meaning that they are designed to loiter over battlefields, looking for targets such as radars. The “kamikaze” term is often applied to this and weapons such as the U.S.-made Switchblade drones in reference to the military aviators who flew suicide attacks for the Japanese empire during World War II.
Because of the distinctive buzzing sounds they make as they approach, the Shahed-136s are typically less destructive than precision missiles — civilians can see and hear them coming, so they have more time to seek shelter before any explosion. Some Ukrainians have dubbed them “flying mopeds”. Unlike large missiles, the drones have a blast radius that is smaller, and they don’t necessarily send shrapnel flying in every direction.
How Is Russia Using Them?
Russian forces seeking an advantage on the battlefield have increasingly been making use of drones. Ukraine believes Russia has ordered as many as 2,400 kamikaze drones from Iran. In response, Kyiv has urged its allies to send sophisticated air defense systems. Russia has its own arms industry, and to some experts it is notable that Moscow has to rely on Tehran for drones.
“Many in Russia were calling for mass strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure months ago to slow down the Ukrainian military’s progress,” Bendett said. “These cheap, expendable drones offer a simple solution.” Russia has largely used kamikaze drones to attack military and infrastructure targets in southern Ukraine. Its forces first deployed the Shahed-136 in northeastern Ukraine in September, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry.
Since mid-September, Ukrainian forces have claimed they shot down Iranian-made drones in various parts of Ukraine. Speaking by video conference to Group of Seven leaders last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, “Every 10 minutes I receive a message about the enemy’s use of Iranian Shaheds.” This has led Kyiv to downgrade its diplomatic relations with Tehran. The drones were used for the first time to strike central Kyiv on Monday in what appeared to be an attempt to target a thermal power station that supplies the capital.
Use By Ukraine
The United States has pledged to send Ukraine over 700 of its own kamikaze drones, called Switchblades, and trained some Ukrainian soldiers in April on how to use them. With its thin body and ruler-shaped wings, the Switchblade drone is different in appearance from the Shahed-136, which looks like a miniature delta-winged fighter plane. One key difference between the Shahed-136 and the Switchblade is range, with the U.S.-made aircraft having a maximum range of up to 25 miles.
Ukraine also has been using the domestically developed RAM II kamikaze drones, partly funded by crowdsourcing. This drone also has a smaller range, going up to only 18 miles, and production has been hampered by supply issues. Non-kamikaze drones have proved important for Ukraine, too. That drone is so popular in Ukraine that a Ukrainian soldier released a song in its honor.
Did you subscribe to our Newsletter?
It’s Free! Click here to Subscribe.