Air Weapons: Poorly Performing but Popular


July 11, 2023: Iran has become a major supplier of munitions for the Russian war effort in Ukraine. One of the more visible of these Iranian munitions is the Shahed-136. These delta wing airborne cruise missiles weigh 200 kg (440 pounds) and are armed with a warhead weighing 30 to 50 kg, most of which is explosives. That’s not a lot because most cruise missiles carry warheads weighing half a ton or more. The Shahed-136 warhead will damage, not destroy, most structures it hits. Shahed-136 is launched using a rocket motor that gets it into the air and then detaches and falls away. To be effective Shahed-136 is launched in swarms, which was the case with this attack. Shahed-136 is propeller driven using a noisy gasoline engine. Aptly described as low (altitude), slow and loud, Shahed-136 is easy to detect and shoot down.

Russia is believed to have obtained 2,400 Shahed-136s from Iran and launched 400 of them against Ukrainian targets. Most are detected and shot down, even if launched at night or just before dawn. The noisy Shahed-136 engine serves as a useful wakeup call.

Despite their poor performance in combat against Ukrainian targets, the Shahed-136 is an impressive system. It uses a GPS navigation system to find targets a thousand or more kilometers away. Shahed-136s rarely go that far because their max speed is 185 kilometers an hour and can be programmed to fly at altitudes from 60 to 4.000 meters (200 to 12.000 feet). At higher altitudes the noise is less noticeable but the Shahed-136 is more likely to be spotted by radar. The Shahed-136s tend to fly lower to the ground. A Shahed-136 can also be equipped with a video camera and a communications link to transmit the video images back to the Russians in real time. One of these surveillance models can be included in a swarm of attack models. This is apparently useful to the Russians the few times the surveillance Shahed-136s have been used.

Earlier this year one of the Shahed-136s developed engine trouble and landed intact. This enabled Ukrainian and foreign investigators to scrutinize the construction of the Shahed-136. Most of these that run into engine problems crash and explode. This one had been given contaminated fuel that caused the UAV to gradually descend and hit the ground without enough impact to set off the warhead’s contact fuze.

Obtaining an intact aircraft allowed for a more thorough inspection to be done. The MD-550 engine was built in Iran and it was confirmed that this was indeed an illegal copy of the German L-550 engine. Iran had obtained one of these engines in 2006 and used it in several UAVs, including Shahed-136. The L-550 entered production in the 1980s and was a popular engine for ultralight aircraft and UAVs. Legal copies of the L-550 cost about $15,000 each. That means a Shahed-136 costs about twice the original estimate of $20,000 each.

The Russians still have about two thousand Shahed-136s left and it is unclear how they plan to use them. These Shahed-136s will be used, and Russia wants the how and when to be an unpleasant surprise for the Ukrainians.




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