Today we are taking a look at the Shahed-136, a kamikaze drone designed by Iran that has been propelled into fame after its high-profile usage in Ukraine by Russia.
Only measuring a couple meters across, these drones have had an oversized impact on the conflict in Ukraine, and drone-countermeasures around the world.
The Shahed-136 is classed as a loitering munition, often informally known as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones, as the drone itself delivers its ordnance directly and is destroyed in the process.
While this may seem like a costly approach, these drones are easy and cheap to produce – even for nations with less-developed aviation industries – and can be made in large numbers.
This is extremely important, because users can send lots toward an enemy target and overwhelm their air defences, either by literally using up all of their anti-air (AA) munitions or slipping through its gaps. Even if most are destroyed, its difficult to eradicate all of them, resulting in a high chance a target is hit.
They can be used alongside other more complex systems, like cruise missiles, to clear a path through air defences, or be used as sacrificial targets to reveal enemy AA positions.
Individually kamikaze drones are vulnerable to air-defences, and can even be brought down by small arms fire. However they create an attractional cost imbalance for the defender, who may be forced into using expensive missiles and other systems to bring down these cheap drones.
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The earliest examples were designed by the US in the 1980s for use as anti-air defence systems. They could loiter above enemy territory ahead of a larger force, and engage their air-defences once their radars were activated.
They have evolved into multiple directions since then, with some becoming larger and more capable, while others have become small enough to be carried in a backpack.
Kamikaze drones are particularly useful to the lesser-equipped nation during asymmetric conflicts, as they are cheap, quick to make, and force a larger and better equipped enemy to respond.
The Shahed-136 is an Iranian kamikaze drone developed by HESA (Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company) and unveiled in 2021.
It is one of a number of drones manufactured by HESA, which range from small, primitive, aerial vehicles (UAVs) to large, aircraft-sized reconnaissance drones that Iran claims are reversed engineered from American hardware.
The Shahed-136 lands somewhere in the middle.
This drone mostly comprises of a relatively large delta-wing, straddling a 3.5 meter long central fuselage section which is blended into the wing. The wingspan is 2.5 meters.
On each wing tip is a vertical stabiliser that protrudes above and below the wing.
At the front of the Shahed-136 is a warhead, which is estimated to contain 30-50 kg (65-110 lbs) of explosives of an unknown composition.
Power is provided by a 50 hp, four-cylinder, 550 cc (33.4 cu in) air-cooled petrol engine, known as the Mado MD-550. This is believed to be a copy of the German Limbach L550E of the same specifications.
This engine drives a two-bladed propeller, and can get the Shahed-136 up to a top speed of around 115 mph (185 km/h). However the most impressive, and most dangerous part of the Shahed-136 is its range, which is as great as 1,550 miles (2,500 km).
Reportedly, the Shahed-136 is not just a kamikaze drone; its warhead can be replaced by a suite of sensors for reconnaissance missions.
The drone is launched from the ground with a rocket-assisted take-off, which is jettisoned after it is used. It lacks an on-board ability to track and identify targets, relying instead on instructions sent to it. It can also be preprogramed with its flight path, preventing communications to and from the drone from being jammed.
It navigates via GPS and an inertial measurement system (IMS). The IMS tracks the movement of the aircraft, such as its pitch, roll, speed and yaw. The system can then use this data to calculate an aircraft’s position by its previous movements, a method known as dead-reckoning.
The Shahed-136 is notable for containing a number of components from western nations, including a large quantity from the United States. This is despite the fact that Iran is heavily sanctioned and is limited in what it can import.
Iran navigated this issue by using many components that are available on civilian markets, rather than military ones. The engine, for example, is popular in remote control aircraft.
Russian Use of the Shahed-136
While the Shahed-136 was first officially unveiled in 2021, there are reports that they were being used by Houthi rebels in Yemen as far back as 2019.
But the type shot to fame in 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of that year. The conflict dragged out much longer than many – including Russia – expected, and by the winter of 2022 Russia began a devastating series of attacks against Ukrainian infrastructure.
The Shahed-136 was at the forefront of these attacks, and soon became a household name for those following the war. However at the time Iran denied selling any drones to Russia. Later they admitted to providing Russia with drones, but said they had been supplied before the war began.
Analysis of components from Iranian drones show that some components had been made after the war began, implying that Iran was supplying them to Russia on a much more regular basis than officially stated.
Russia operates the drone under the name Geran-2 (geran meaning geranium). They were famously used in October 2022 against Ukrainian energy infrastructure, disabling significant portions of the nation’s power grid and incurring civilian casualties.
Their great range means they can be launched from Russia, Belarus or occupied Crimea and hit targets anywhere in Ukraine. They are often sent in “swarms” to overwhelm Ukraine’s defences, which have to bring down one-hundred percent of incomings to protect their nation.
On October 17th, for example, Russia launched 28 Shahed-136 drones against Ukraine, of which around half were intercepted. It was reported that Iranian experts were present in Crimea to train Russian users, but then Ukraine claimed to have killed a number of these experts in an attack.
Hundreds have been launched against Ukrainian targets, although Ukraine claims to have brought a large number of these down after focusing their efforts.
Countering the Geran-2/Shahed-136 is a difficult task due to their small size and low speed. They fly low to avoid radar detection, and even once spotted, fighter aircraft struggle to track and engage them.
Interestingly, some of the most effective countermeasures against these drones have been older systems, such as heavy-machine guns paired with modern optics. The German Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (which was retired from German service) has made a comeback, with its search and tracking radars and 35 mm auto-cannons optimised for low-level engagements.
But the Shahed-136 drones are a dangerous opponent to face, as their debris – containing a live warhead – can still cause extensive damage when it comes down.
Ukraine noted that attacks slowed down after initial barrages in October and November 2022 – this was attributed by some to Russia burning through their supplies of the drones.
However in late 2022 news broke that Russia had secured a deal with Iran to produce the Shahed-136 and other Shahed drones themselves. This would enable Russia to use their significantly greater manufacturing capabilities to produce more drones than Iran could supply.
Russian-made Shahed-136s were found to be in use as early as July 2023. Inspections of these examples found a large quantity of their components to be sourced from western nations, including the US.