Introduction and Background
Since mid-September 2022, the Russian Federation Armed Forces (RFAF) have sought to improve capability through increased use of ‘kamikaze drones’ – also known as Loitering Munitions (LMs). The first use of Shahed-136 (rebranded ‘Geran-2’ by the RFAF) is reported to have been in the Kharkiv area in August 20221, however prior to this, the RFAF have used their own indigenous LMs, such as the Zala KUB2 and Zala Lancet-3; which was first observed in use in Ukraine in July 20223.
Drones have been used to both complement and supplement conventional strikes using guided missiles. These include the sea-launched ‘Kalibr’, air-launched Kh-101/Kh-555, and ground-based ‘Iskander’ missiles – all of which are considerably more complex and expensive than the Shahed-136 LM, but are likely to have a lower Circular Error Probable (CEP – a common phrase for noting the accuracy of a long-range system) and larger warheads. Modern western surface-to-air missile systems such as IRIS-T (from Germany) and NASAMS (from the USA) are likely to be effective at destroying individual drones, but missiles are limited in quantity and more expensive than the drones they are used to destroy. Against slow-speed and low-level targets such as LMs, self-propelled Anti-Air-Artillery (AAA) guns such as the German Gepard are likely to be more cost-effective.
This report focuses on LMs and guided missile systems, and will not cover the RFAF use of larger drones for Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and associated strike missions. Orlan, Forpost and Mujaheer-6 Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are outside the scope of this report.
Drone and Missile Types
Below is a table of information covering frequently used RFAF-operated Precision Guided Munition (PGM) types observed or reportedly planned for use in Ukraine. Information quoted is from open source5,6, and may not be an accurate representation of true capability.
The Lancet and Zala KUB are both tactical systems, predominantly deployed at short ranges in direct support of ground manoeuvre/operations, to attack point targets such as artillery systems and armoured personnel carriers. It is likely that there is a low usage level of LMs at the tactical level by the RFAF as there is very little reporting or imagery of Zala KUB and Lancet drone use. Additionally, they have not garnered the same level of international attention due to their use against military targets on the front line (and immediate rear). It is a realistic possibility that international sanctions (as well as the significant levels of corruption and malpractice in the Russian armament industry) have slowed/delayed the production of large numbers of these indigenous Russian UAS, and their relatively new design and introduction is a possible explanation for their limited recorded use to date.
The Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defence (GUR) of Ukraine, Kyrylo Budanov, recently stated that the Russian Federation was running out of guided missiles - “For Iskanders, this is about 13% left, for missiles of the Kalibr-PL, Kalibr-NK types, this is about 43%, for Kh-101 and Kh-555 missiles, also about 45%. To sag below 30% is generally very dangerous because it is already underway emergency reserve7”. Western Intelligence organisations, such as UK Defence Intelligence8 have stated that Russia is running low on stocks of guided missiles and that production is unable to keep up with expenditure. Prevail published a report ‘Russian Bombardment Activities: Short-term Punishment, or a Strategic Shift?’ on 13 October 2022, which covers some of the issues facing Russia with regard to PGM.
Since 10 October 2022 the RFAF has shifted targeting priorities to Ukrainian infrastructure. These attacks using valuable stocks of PGMs have targeted electrical distribution points and substations rather than power generation facilities which have better air defence. It is highly likely that the RFAF are seeking to destroy electrical infrastructure to degrade living conditions for the Ukrainian population and create additional friction for President Zelensky to deal with. Heating and water supplies in many urban areas of Ukraine are directly and inextricably linked to the electrical system, so power disruption also shuts off central heating and mains water, creating difficult winter living conditions. Secondary effects would include driving more refugees into central Europe, which would apply additional pressure on western governments who are already facing high energy prices amid Russian energy blackmail. The energy infrastructure has not changed drastically since Ukraine was part of the USSR, and therefore it is almost certain that the Russians have mapping of most of the network from its original design and construction. This means that there is a minimal requirement for ISR flights prior to strikes, and also allows Russia to attack vulnerable nodes/conduits rather than production, although power stations and offices of energy workers have also been attacked. The targeting is likely directed by specialists from Russian energy agencies to have maximum effect9.
Shahed-136 Impact Effect – UkrEnergo HQ, Kyiv, 17 October 2022
As part of the ongoing RFAF campaign against energy infrastructure, on 17 October 22 four Shahed-136 LMs impacted in the vicinity of the UkrEnergo IT Headquarters in Kyiv, or ‘Heat Supply Station No.1’ (Станція теплопостачання №1) which is adjacent. The attack occurred between 0730 and 0800hrs (local). The LMs struck an apartment building (killing three), the UkrEnergo HQ, and a business centre. From eyewitness and emergency services reports it is almost certain that the LMs used were Shahed-136, and it is likely that they were launched from Belarus due to the angle of approach. Accuracy of the weapon systems is likely fairly low – it is assessed that the target of the LMs was the UkrEnergo IT centre and the Heat Supply station (in line with assessed RFAF target prioritisation), therefore three out of four weapons missed their intended target by up to 240m (in the case of the business centre). Given the relatively short flight time/distance (the Belarusian border is 96km away), the inaccuracy of the munitions may be due to GPS-denial; forcing the LMs to revert to inertial navigation which is basic and does not have a high degree of accuracy. Of note, this indicates civilians and NGOs residing or operating near (within approximately 500m) electrical and power infrastructure are at higher risk of being killed or injured by RFAF strikes. The low speed and distinctive sound produced by the Shahed-136 should allow sufficient time to reach bomb shelters and move away from the likely point of impact.
The Shahed-136 has a warhead weighing approximately 40kg, and is likely to be a High Explosive blast/fragmentation warhead. Below is some imagery from the impacts in Kyiv. The blast appears to be directional (forward of the LM), and does not widely spread fragmentation, as seen in the below imagery and comment provided by Prevail personnel operating in Kyiv.
The low yield and probable directional nature of the warhead on the Shahed-136, combined with its low speed and distinctive sound should go some way towards preventing large numbers of civilian casualties/collateral damage. The impact is approximately 1/10th of the power of a Kalibr cruise missile (which also detonates any remaining fuel upon impact, further increasing the blast), and significantly smaller than some of the large vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices used in the Iraq insurgency after 2003. Both of these other device types arrive usually without warning, contain significantly more explosive material and would pose a greater threat to the civilian population and long-term reconstruction efforts.
Looking Forward – What Happens Next?
It is likely that Russia will continue to procure Shahed-136 LMs from Iran in order to continue operational and strategic attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure, despite their small area of effect and ease of interception. The LMs cost less than some of the Air Defence missiles expended to destroy them, and may also be available in greater numbers if Iran can step up production to meet demand. It is highly likely that due to the ineffectiveness of efforts to boost Russian PGM manufacture, Russia will acquire further weapons from Iran. This is likely to include more Shahed-136 LMs, and a more advanced model – the Arash-2, which reportedly has a larger warhead and possibly greater range than the Shahed-136. Iran has been able to domestically produce LMs and UAS in spite of persistent international sanctions and is therefore likely to continue to supply Russia with weapons. It is relatively simple to transport weapons from Iran to Russia across the Caspian Sea, so international interdiction efforts are unlikely to succeed. It is likely that Russia will seek to acquire Iranian SRBMs (Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar) to complement ongoing low-rate domestic production of PGMs. Zolfaghar missiles and possibly Arash-2 LMs may improve the RFAF capability to destroy operational targets and infrastructure more effectively. Targeting infrastructure is also likely relatively easy for Russian planners, as they are aware of the static target locations. This makes them easier to hit than mobile targets or time-sensitive targets of greater military significance.
It is highly unlikely that Ukraine can defend all of its energy infrastructure, despite increased international support. Stocks of newly-acquired NASAMs and IRIS-T air defences are unlikely to be available in the numbers required to stop swarm attacks or concentrated bombardments, and defence of major infrastructure and city centres is likely to be prioritised by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The electrical network is too thinly spread around the country to be easily defensible. It is however unlikely that the RFAF will be able to erode western support or destroy the Ukrainian will to fight by targeting dual-use and civilian infrastructure. It is likely that Russia will however continue to target infrastructure as winter approaches, using whatever means available. It is almost certain that the RFAF will maintain a reserve of modern PGMs (KH-101, Kalibr and Iskander) for priority military/government targets, and as ‘war stocks’ should the conflict escalate to the point it becomes a direct confrontation with NATO member states.
4Images from ZALA Aero Group https://zala-aero.com/en/production/bvs/
8https://twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1576084615810490368, https://twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1580055920351924224, https://twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1581518952777150464, https://twitter.com/DefenceHQ/status/1584402620260573185