Russian Military Usage of the Iranian Drones

We see Russian Army started to use Iranian drones Shahed-136 (dubbed “Geran’-2” in Russian service) on regular basis. Those drones are now used as cheap cruise missiles.

They don’t have an imaging sensor, so they cannot be used for reconnaissance or for autonomous target detection. Instead, they rely on a GPS navigation, which, as I understand, can be updated in flight. So, the only way to use it to designate and engage targets in real time, is to use them with a more sophisticated drone which have an onboard video camera and a targeting computer. (Such drones are Mohajer-6, which Russia have also received.) In which case, the targeting drone can find targets and assign their GPS coordinates to the Shahed-136 in real time.

Russia had received both types of drones: the targeting drone and the suicide drone Shahed -136, but recently it mostly uses the cheaper ones for engagement of stationary targets. If the reports of the usage of Iranian drones are representative of their actual usage, then it seems the scheme of targeting drone + strike drones are no more in use. The possible reason is the depletion of the more expensive and less abundant targeting drones due to the Ukrainian air-defence and electronic countermeasures. But whatever the reason might be, we see that now the Iranian drones are used in a much less effective way.

I would explain why I see the drone usage for striking stationary targets as less effective. Theoretically, Russian Army possess a large nomenclature of ammunition for precision strikes on stationary targets in ranges from ~120km (modernized “Smerch” GPS-guided rockets) and up to 2000+ km. What Russian Army is desperately lacking is sufficient number of attack drones, able to find and engage targets in real time, or at least reconnaissance drones provide quality intelligence for the regional command and fire solution for the artillery.

Russia had in its possession a number of such drones, starting from the Israeli IAI licensed Fort (Searcher-2), Orlan family strike drones of the privately owned Kronshtadt company, Zala reconnaissance and Lantset suicide drones. All of those were used quite actively in the beginning of the war, but after some months of fighting, their usage has dropped almost to a zero. Obviously, the reason is the depletion of those drones in the military stocks, and the inability to produce them in sufficient numbers to compensate for their losses.

Russian Army had a good overall experience with the usage of drones in Syria. But the bigger war showed the inadequacy of the Russian stocks and production facilities. Which isn’t really a shock, since the only company, which was effective in designing and producing drones, the Kronshtadt, has received in previous years a very unfavorable attitude from the Russian MoD. Instead, the ministry preferred to flow large sums of money in failing government-owned factories, which produced not much more than a pretty concept pictures. It isn’t hard to guess why it is — corruption is the usual answer.

So, the way out of this mess in the near term was to buy Iranian drones. In the longer term, the money was finally flown to the Kronshtadt company, but we won’t see the results for months or even years. Now, for the Iranian drones. I hear some people think they are something special. They are not. For example, the Shaheb-136 is visually similar to the Israeli “Harpy” suicide drone, but the latter has its own camera and sophisticated targeting computer. Even the Russian “lantset” suicide drones have their own camera. Shahed-136 only real virtue is that they are accessible for the Russian military to purchase in numbers. China probably could supply more and far better drones if it wanted, but for some reason it doesn’t. North Korea would probably be very interested in supplying Russia with drones (in exchange for Russian air-defence systems, fighter jets etc.), but they don’t have the necessary technology. And the militias, volunteers and even the Russian military personnel purchase commercial drones with their own money or with donations made by private citizens.

To come back around to the Russian usage of the Iranian drones. Now, they are being used as poor-man cruise missiles. For example, the latest report from Rybar telegram channel mentions a Shaheb-136 strike on some target in Krivoi Rog. This city is within the range of the modernized Smerch MLRS system, which has (for many years now) GPS guided rockets. Those 300-mm rockets are much more potent than the Shahed-136, and are technically in Russian service.

So why the need to use the drones against stationary targets then? The only answers I can come up with, is that either Russian stock are low on those GPS guided rockets and other types of ballistic and cruise missiles, or they lost the ability to use the drones as intended (targeting drone + the suicide drone), and instead using them the only way they can — as less potent cruise missiles. I say: “less potent”, because they are slow, easy to shoot down even with small caliber anti-air artillery and have relatively small warhead. In other words, one modern “Smerch” rocket can speculatively have the same effect as half a dozen “Shaheds”. And it will also be much cheaper and smarter, to purchase from your own MIC instead of your frenemy’s.

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