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Russia steps up use of kamikaze drones in Ukraine

January 4, 2023

Russia is using simply constructed, single-use drones to terrorize civilians in Ukraine. Launching a proper defense against the attacks can be a costly exercise.

 A Russian drone seen during a drone strike
Delta wings and a gasoline engine make the Shahed-136 easy to recognizeImage: Roman Petushkov/REUTERS

Mostly, they come at night. Residents in Ukrainian cities are hearing the explosions from Russian kamikaze drones with great frequency.

But the term "kamikaze" is actually somewhat misleading in this context. Kamikaze attacks were suicide missions carried out during World War II by young Japanese pilots who would crash their aircraft into Allied ships to create as much damage as possible. The death of the pilot was an intrinsic part of the entire concept.

Drones on the other hand, don't have human pilots. The term "single-use" would be more fitting, because unlike Turkish Bayraktar drones, which return after bombing attacks or reconnaissance flights, so-called kamikaze drones are destroyed during attacks.

Damaged residential building with rescuers working
Drones have caused considerable damage in Ukraine, as here in KyivImage: Oleksii Chumachenko/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

The kamikaze drone model most commonly deployed in Ukraine is the Shahed-136. It's manufactured in Iran, though both Russia and Iran dispute the purchase of them. The Shahed-136 is around 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) long with delta wings that extend 2.5 meters. The drone can carry 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives. It relies on a gasoline-powered rear propeller for propulsion. It's rather loud, and its top speed of 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles per hour) is relatively low.

It has a range, however, of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles). Even if the actual range of the drone is actually a bit lower than its Iranian manufacturers claim, it's still significantly further than other kamikaze drones. The Shahed-136 drones can reach every Ukrainian city from Russia.

US Switchblade versus Iran's Shahed

The Shahed-136 is built very simply. Unlike with the American-made Switchblade kamikaze drones, a target has to be entered into the Shahed-136 in advance. The drone flies toward it on its own, and the target can't be altered retroactively. From then on, the drone operates completely autonomously.

Switchblade drone
The Switchblade drone is far smaller than the Shahed-136 and has a much shorter range but is more technologically advanced Image: AeroVironment/abaca/picture alliance

Kamikaze drones are often referred to as "loitering munitions" because they loiter around target areas for some time and attack only once a target is located. Unlike the Shahed-136, other drones like the Switchblade can hover above a particular area before an operator on the ground assigns it a target. The targets can even be mobile. The drone then flies toward the target upon command and is itself destroyed during the attack.

A difficult balance: Is shooting down kamikaze drones worth it?

The Shahed-136 doesn't stand a chance against modern aerial defense technology. Military experts also maintain that it isn't suited for deployment on the front lines.

But that doesn't seem to be the goal of the Russian military in their war on Ukraine anyway. The use of the kamikaze drones clearly has another purpose: destroying civil infrastructure and residential buildings to spread fear among the population.

 Three Shahed-136 drones being fired at once
The drones are often fired in swarms, as seen here during Iranian military exercisesImage: irdiplomacy.ir

Priced at around $20,000 (€18,900) each, the Shahed kamikaze drones are relatively cheap. Because their parts are also easy to come by, it raises the question of whether deploying a modern missile defense system against them makes sense when each individual missile costs several times more than a kamikaze drone does.

To complicate matters more, Russian has been deploying entire swarms of the Shahed drones. Even if some of them are shot down, others still reach their targets. Even worse, fighting off the drones ties up Ukraine's military and aerial defense, taking them away from the front where they are needed. That also seems to be part of Russia's strategy.

Western military experts believe that the kamikaze drones serve as a substitute for the much more expensive cruise missiles that are increasingly in short supply in Russia.

The simple, cheap kamikaze drones don't play a significant role on the battlefield. Russia is apparently using them for their psychological impact, in the hopes of wearing down Ukraine's civilian population.

Kamikaze drones cause considerable damage in Ukraine

This article was translated from German.