Suicide UAVs in the Skies of Ukraine — Reason for Concern in Israel

Exploding on the target at a distance of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles): The Shahed-136 will likely be a very significant factor this winter and if the Russians launch swarms of UAVs, the Ukrainians will be in trouble. Iran, which is expected to deliver missiles to Moscow, will use the data it receives to improve the accuracy of its weapons. But even this does not persuade the West to refrain from signing a nuclear agreement. This is how Israel should act.

Iran continues to provide Russia with unmanned aerial vehicles that are not significantly improving the military gains of Vladimir Putin in the various combat fronts in Ukraine — at least for now. The cameras mounted on the Mohajer-6 UAVs are improving the capabilities of the Russian army in gathering battlefield intelligence, primarily in locating artillery and anti-aircraft batteries and the movement of large columns of Ukrainian armor. Employing this UAV, which also carries two to three small missiles, the Russians can completely disable a tank, mobile artillery and Ukrainian radar. However, according to British and American intelligence, neither the intelligence gathering nor the provided physical destruction are effective, at least for now, in influencing change in Russia’s favor on one or more of the battlefields.

The Shahed-136 suicide UAV is particularly effective and dangerous, especially against unprotected civilian targets. It is a small, light aerial vehicle loaded with fuel and several dozen kilograms (about 50 pounds) of destructive explosive material. It is programmed to navigate to targets located at least 1,000 kilometers away (621 miles) by means of a GPS system and then to explode on the target. If the target were a large apartment building or a power station, a GPS device that could be purchased in large quantities on eBay, for instance, would be sufficient to exact the desired results: civilians, dead and injured; survivors, escaping to subway stations and refusing to leave; power outages; and water shortages.

Shahed-136 UAVs have recently presented a real problem to Ukrainian authorities and municipalities and for the civilian administration of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. They not only cause death and physical destruction, but also morale and psychological damage because of the feeling among civilians that Russia has a growing ability to reach any location in Ukraine with these long-range UAVs.

In the battlefield, the Shahed-136 can be operated in two ways: first, as a “suicide UAV” — loaded with dozens of kilograms (or more than 50 pounds) of sensitive explosives — programmed to fly and break up over a targeted location. The second means of operation is as “loitering armament”: The Shahed-136 is dispatched to a circle over a combat area until it locates the target itself, without remote targeting, by means of sensors or cameras installed on it. The UAV locates the preprogrammed target and destroys it. When the sensors identify this target, for example by means of radar emissions from anti-aircraft batteries, the UAV dives until it physically strikes the target and blows it up.

It should be noted that a single suicide UAV cannot be a “game changer” on the battlefield; among other things, the Ukrainian army has internalized the concept that on the modern battlefield one should not remain in one place for more than a few hours. Even if one is well-hidden under foliage and does not fire or raise clouds of dust, you would be exposed sooner or later and then be fired upon. Therefore, Ukrainian artillery and missile batteries fire and then immediately break camp and move to a new position. This tactic is also employed with tanks. In addition, the Ukrainians use electronic jamming and fire on the UAVs and, in many cases, bring them down. However, the possibility remains that Russians will employ attack UAVs in large numbers. Those provided by Iran are relatively inexpensive.

Under current conditions, there are no technical issues preventing the use of the Shahed-136 in large “swarms” of dozens of UAVs, rather than launching them as they do now in pairs and groups of four. If the Russians do this, the Ukrainians will be in trouble. This will occur primarily during the upcoming winter, when the movement of columns of armor, artillery, surface-to-air missile batteries and supply convoys in frozen eastern Ukraine will be limited to travel on paved highways, rather than on muddy roads. These convoys will be exposed to attacks by Iranian UAV swarms and drones, much as the Russian convoys were at the beginning of the war last winter.

In general, winter war in Ukraine becomes a static situation of mutual pounding, where Iranian UAVs and perhaps also semi-precise surface-to-surface missiles will provide the Russians with the quantitative and qualitative advantage. This is not only on the battlefield, but also in the brutal, inhumane war of attrition that the Russians are conducting against the civilian population in Ukraine.

So, for example, an attack by an Iranian-manufactured UAV against a power station in a medium-sized city in Ukraine will leave thousands of women, children and the elderly shivering from the cold and in darkness or without a roof in the freezing winter.

There is still no official confirmation from an American or other source on the news published yesterday in The Washington Post that Iran will sell Russia Fateh-110 surface-to-surface missiles (186-mile range) and the Zolfaghar (435-mile range). Nevertheless, it is quite likely that the information is correct, despite categorical denials by Russia and Iran. These missiles constitute a threat primarily to the civilian population. This is the reason Putin wants to use them, even though their use by the Russian army against the Ukrainian army is marginal.

The conclusion is that the United States and NATO must quickly develop effective plans — whether “soft” or “hard” — to compete with the large swarms of UAVs and large salvos of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and to neutralize them before they strike their targets. The Ukrainians recognized the great military potential for UAVs and drones much earlier than the Russians did, and learned to operate them with great effectiveness in order to make intelligence and fire more effective and accurate against the Russians. UAVs were used relatively sparsely when the fighting began. Therefore, Ukrainians could very well lead the West in developing capabilities to neutralize the UAV threat. Israel should join the effort, although with a low profile and without political pronouncements.

The less sympathetic side of the coin is the value the Iranians will gain from operating their weapons systems on the Ukrainian battlefield. Not only will Iranian scientists and experts be able to improve the accuracy and increase the destructive capability of their UAVs and missiles, based on the experience the Russians are gaining in Ukraine, but they also will learn to convert their UAVs and missiles to be immune to Western-developed countermeasures (perhaps supported by Israel) and will learn to develop operational programs that will bypass defense measures.

Battlefields, both in the world and specifically in Ukraine, are ultimate experimental laboratories where competitive technological and operational study take place between the sides, where the winner in the laboratory, in general, wins the war. The Iranians, through the Russians (as always, by means of a “proxy”), are competing now in the global league of the developers and manufacturers of sophisticated combat systems and are gathering experience. There is no doubt that Russian scientists and engineers are aiding the Iranians and sharing with them the information they are gathering in Ukraine from operating Iranian and other systems. This is not good news from an Israeli viewpoint.

For those who have forgotten, Israel was forced to deal with this and successfully contended against Iranian UAVs and missiles that the Russians employed and apparently will employ in Ukraine. Therefore, it is quite probable that sooner or later we will be the ones required to deal with improved and deadly Iranian capabilities. Israel has an interest in this and there is intelligence material and technology information that likely will contribute to efforts by the West to develop systems to defend the cities of Ukraine against Iranian UAVs and missiles.

In any case, it is logical to assume that Israel will derive great security benefits from the information gathered by the West in dealing with Iranian UAVs and missiles in Ukraine. This is another reason to claim that we have a practical and moral obligation to get off the fence and find ways to help with Ukraine’s defensive war effort, but without poking the Russian bear.

The Russians are aware of this possibility and are concerned. Evidence of this is the threat made today by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (who serves today as deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council) in response to what was said by Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nahman Shai, who stated that Israel would openly help Ukraine. Medvedev warned that sending military aid to Ukraine would be a “very rash step.” It is clear that this was a threat. He meant that if Israel actively supports the Ukrainian war effort, Russian forces stationed in Syria could respond by limiting the Israel Defense Force’s freedom of operations in thwarting Iranian entrenchment in Syria and Iranian-Lebanese activities in Syria to produce more accurate missiles during the conflict between wars. Russia has long-range surface-to-air missile batteries in Syria (S-300 and S-400) and war planes capable of disrupting the freedom of action by the Israeli air force in the skies of Syria and Lebanon. However, the current poor performance of the Russian army does not allow it to dispatch an expeditionary force in Syria for much engagement with the IDF, in general, and the air force, specifically. Israel can act to defend its interests even under Russian threat, but at no time is it desirable to become entangled in a conflict with a superpower — especially not one resembling a wounded animal whose reactions are unpredictable.

From a diplomatic perspective, the government of Israel and its citizens apparently need to pat themselves on the back, because much that they have been warning about has been realized. For years, our leaders have been warning Western leaders. As they predicted, Iran, under the ayatollahs, is among those labeled the “axis of evil” since the invasion of Ukraine.

In other words, this is the camp of those countries with an authoritarian regime and “democratic” tyrannical rulers such as China, Belarus and North Korea. This camp sees liberal democratic countries as cultural, political and physical enemies to be eliminated because they represent an existential danger.

It is now clear that Iran and its conventional weapons industry are a real physical threat to peace and stability in the world, overall, and in Europe, specifically. This is all the more true if, God forbid, the Iranians successfully develop and produce nuclear weapons for themselves. In Jerusalem, it is said that the almost fervent alignment of ayatollahs with the camp aiding and supporting Putin requires the West to deal with Iran as it does with an enemy — not as a potential partner.

Therefore, it is not necessary to reach a compromise regarding the renewed nuclear agreement. In Jerusalem, they believe this type of compromise serves to delay fulfillment of the Iranian nuclear threat for only a few years — and at the same time, increases the conventional threat to be seen in Tehran when sanctions are lifted and billions of dollars stream into the coffers of the ayatollahs and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

However, according to all indications, in Washington and at European Union headquarters in Brussels, there are few disciples and supporters of the Israeli thesis. Belgian EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell has already indicated that he is still unconvinced that Iran supplied attack UAVs to Russia. He asked today that they show him clear proof to convince him that this indeed happened, despite ample photographic evidence. The United States, similarly, refuses to draw a link between Iranian support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and renewal of the nuclear accord.

Therefore, it can be assumed that if the Iranians want it, the Europeans and Americans will quickly sign the renewed nuclear agreement arguing that, at the least, they are gaining time to think about a more effective and stable solution to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is worthwhile for Jerusalem not to pin great hopes on the fact that Iran has deepened its profile in the West as a “pariah state.” The renewed nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers is still on the agenda and they will return to discuss it after the midterm elections next month in the United States.

About this publication

About Charles Railey 61 Articles
I recently retired from the federal government, having worked for many years on Middle East issues and regional media. My fascination with the region has never changed and this is one reason why the work of Watching America caught my eye. I live in the DC area with my wife, two grown children, and three cats.

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