Russia Is Replicating Iranian Drones and Using Them to Attack Ukraine

Russia has begun making copies of attack drones it acquired from Iran last year and is using them in combat against Ukrainian forces despite sanctions imposed to cripple the country’s weapons production, according to a report issued Thursday by a weapons research group.

The researchers traveled to Kyiv in late July and inspected the wreckage of two attack drones that were used in combat in southeastern Ukraine. Both appeared to be Iranian Shahed-136s, but they contained electronic modules that match components previously recovered from Russian surveillance drones, according to the report.

Additionally, the materials used to build the two drones and the internal structure of their fuselages differed greatly from those known to have been made in Iran, the researchers said.

The investigation was conducted by Conflict Armament Research, an independent group based in Britain that identifies and tracks weapons and ammunition used in wars. It is the group’s 10th published account of its work in Kyiv, where researchers have analyzed Russian military hardware collected on the battlefield by Ukraine’s security services.

Uncrewed aerial vehicles have been used by both combatants in the war. Some are reusable and designed for surveillance missions, built like small airplanes. Others are commercially available quadcopters that can spy on enemy troops or attack them by dropping small grenades from above.

A drone near Kyiv that Ukrainian authorities said was a Shahed-136.Credit…Reuters

The Shahed, however, and others like it are so-called one-way attack drones or kamikaze drones — small propeller-driven aircraft that do not need a runway to launch, and explode on impact.

In September, Russia began using Iranian-made Shahed drones to attack deep inside Ukraine. They are believed to carry about 80 pounds of explosives and have a range of about 600 miles.

“This new version will allow Russia to sustain its attack patterns and its reliance on these one-way drones,” said Damien Spleeters, who led the group’s investigation. “So the fact that they make it domestically will allow them to continue to rely on it.”

Weapons experts say the Shahed and the Russian-produced version both use satellite navigation signals to fly to programmed target locations.

The Biden administration imposed sweeping sanctions against Russia immediately after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 that were intended to cut off Moscow’s access to foreign-made electronic devices like semiconductors, computers, lasers and telecommunications equipment. Those measures have not stopped Russia from acquiring many of those items from the global market and using them in advanced weapons.

“Our findings also raise questions about export control and counter-diversion measures, as we see a lot of the components we found are made after February 2022,” Mr. Spleeters said. “So if they can keep on getting them, there’s an issue, obviously.”

The Shahed is one of at least three models of armed drones that Iran has supplied to Russia since September. In November, the researchers found that most of the semiconductors and other electronics in these weapons came from companies headquartered in Western nations, including the United States.

Burned remnants of a Kometa satellite navigation unit from a Geran-2 attack drone, documented by researchers in Kyiv on July 27, 2023.Credit…Conflict Armament Research

The Russian-made versions of the Shahed-136 are commonly marked as Geran-2, or Geranium-2 in Russian. Photos of them appeared in Ukrainian news outlets in July, and The Long War Journal, a publication of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also recently wrote about them.

And while Iranian Shahed-136 drones marked Geran-2 have previously been recovered in Ukraine, the evidence presented in the report indicates that Russian-made copies with the same name are now in use.

The fuselage of the Iranian drones the researchers inspected was constructed with a lightweight honeycomb type of material, but the Russian Gerans were made with fiberglass over layers of woven carbon fiber, according to the report.

The guidance sections of both Gerans recovered in July contained electronic modules called Kometa — Russian for comet — that the researchers previously found in Russian drones that were recovered on the battlefield.

By using Kometa guidance systems, the Russians have simplified the internal electronics needed to fly and guide the drones.

“It also shows how they were able to adjust the basic operating principles of the Shahed, streamlining them and using modules that were battle-tested in other types of weapons instead of reinventing the wheel,” Mr. Spleeters said.

Military analysts have been watching to see whether Russia would be able to make its own one-way attack drones since the Iranian weapons entered the conflict, according to Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian military drones at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research organization based in Virginia.

“We’ve now seen in Russian media that these are in fact domestic assembly, and there are changes introduced in the design based on their own needs,” Mr. Bendett said. “This is indicative of Russians trying to come up with a drone that’s just as capable as the original Shahed that could then be scaled up in significant quantities.”

“The ultimate goal for them is to maintain the capacity while making them more effective and actually driving down the costs,” he said.

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