Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense claimed that it shot down an Iranian drone used by Russian forces near Kupiansk. The Strategic Communications Department of the Ukrainian Armed Forces published photographs depicting the wing of a destroyed unmanned aerial vehicle that looks similar to the wing of Iran’s Shahed-136 drone. Yesterday, the ministry said it was “highly likely” that Russian Forces are utilizing Iranian-made drones, adding that “Russia is almost certainly increasingly sourcing weaponry from other heavily sanctioned states like Iran and North Korea as its own stocks dwindle.” Although the regime has consistently denied supplying the Kremlin with UAVs amidst its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. has provided evidence to the contrary.
While industry analysts and military experts have widely speculated that the wingtip of the destroyed drone captured by Ukraine appears strikingly similar to an Iranian-made variant, Tehran has yet to acknowledge its delivery of UAVs to Russia. In July, the White House broke the news that two Russian delegations visited the Kashan airfield in Iran- known as the country’s drone capital- since the war in Ukraine broke out. The Biden administration also publicized satellite imagery of Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones being debuted on the airfield while the Russian delegation viewed them.
A few weeks later, Iran appeared to showcase its top killer UAVs in a drone competition participated in with Russia, Belarus, Armenia. While a top adviser to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp’s aerospace chief claimed that the objective of the drills was to “communicate a message of peace and friendship and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s joint cooperation with other countries to counter global terrorism,” shoring up potential UAV customers was likely a factor.
Iran and Russia have shared military ties for decades, however, their budding alliance has grown recently since both rogue states share a common enemy- the West. Both Moscow and Tehran have been largely isolated from the international community vis-à-vis sanctions. Following the Kremlin’s Ukraine invasion, the West has halted trade and weapons deliveries to Moscow. Iran similarly has been targeted economically for its buildup of ballistic missiles and proximity to building a nuclear weapon. It makes sense that these countries would tighten up military ties to counter these factors. Additionally, short on cash, the Iranian regime is probably eager for new foreign customers to buy its military equipment. Since drones have been at the forefront of the Ukraine invasion, the regime could be exploiting Moscow’s need for lethal UAVs to support its offensive war efforts.
Which Iranian drones does Russia now possess?
Iran’s Shahed-191 UAV is described as being “homegrown” by Iranian officials, however, the drone is primarily based on a Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel drone which the regime captured in 2011. According to The Aviationist, the UAV is capable of flying at speeds up to 300 m/h at 25,000 ft with an endurance of 4.5 hours. The drone uses two retractable skids instead of the typical landing gear and also features a parachute for when a runway is not available. “The weapons are installed in two internal bays (which sometimes lack their doors, remaining open for the entire flight and thus nullifying the drone’s claimed “stealthiness”), each capable of holding a Sadid-342 guided glide bomb with fragmentation warhead, which is also extremely similar to the Sadid-1 anti-tank missile, so much so that often is difficult to discern one from the other. According to some analysts, the weapon could use “man in the loop” guidance.” Tehran’s modified Shahed-129 can reportedly carry up to eight bombs or missiles, making it the lethal weapon Moscow desires to confront Ukrainian forces and their military equipment.
The destroyed drone captured by Ukrainian forces appears to be an Iranian Shahed-136 UAV. This loitering munition, typically referred to as a “suicide” or “kamikaze’ drone can fly at speeds up to 120 mph. These types of lethal drones are precision weapons that can loiter over a designated area while seeking a target to attack.
Russian Forces have likely been trained to use Iranian drones
In August, the U.S. State Department deputy spokesperson announced that it believed Iran had begun training Russian Forces to use its UAVs. Russia was suspected of receiving its first batch of drones from Iran shortly after, which U.S. officials believe were faulty and suffered from “numerous failures.” Although loitering munitions like the Shahed-136 can be a very formidable asset for any military, without proper training or sufficient equipment, their potential use in warfare is limited.
Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.