Air Weapons: UAVs Used as Cruise Missiles


August 10, 2023: For over a year, Ukrainian urban areas or military facilities have been under attack by Russian UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) used as cruise missiles. The concept was demonstrated by Russian ally Iran using the Iranian Shahed-136. Russia was impressed and since early 2022 used hundreds of Shahed-136s to attack Ukraine. Russia was so impressed that they built a factory to build Shahed-136s in Russia under license. Iran assisted in setting up the factory, which began operations in early 2023. Shahed-136 is relatively crude but effective and inexpensive. If a target had any air defenses Shahed-136s tend to be detected and shot down. Russia still used them because Shahed-136 is cheap and often effective.

Shahed-136 is a delta wing airborne cruise missile that weighs 200 kg (440 pounds) and 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 most attacks. 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.

Even before building their Shahed-136 factory Russia obtained over two thousand Shahed-136s from Iran and launched 400 of them against Ukrainian targets. Most were detected and shot down, even if launched at night or just before dawn. The noisy Shahed-136 engine serves as a useful wakeup call. For example, the Ukrainian capital is only 380 kilometers from the Russian border. The Russian capital Moscow is 840 kilometers. While Kyiv is regularly attacked by Russian missiles, including Shahed-136s, Ukraine has only recently launched UAV attacks against Moscow. Russia didn’t believe this was practical or possible until Ukrainian UAVs began hitting targets in Moscow. Now Russia has to create and maintain air defense systems capable of detecting these UAVs and intercepting them. That is still a work in progress but so are Ukrainian efforts to develop, build and launch new attack UAVs for targets deep inside Russia. And not only Moscow, but the many military targets, including military bases and weapons storage or manufacturing facilities. By developing quiet attack UAVs that can travel long distances at low altitudes to avoid radar detection, the Ukrainians having an impact on Russian morale and popular support for their war in Ukraine.

Ukrainians learned from the Russian experience using Shahed-136. 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.

Several Ukrainian entrepreneurs worked to develop a more effective but still inexpensive UAV that could be used as a long-range and somewhat stealthy cruise missile. Ukraine needs such a weapon to hit important targets deep inside Russia. Ukraine does not publicize efforts in this area but revelations are made when attacks succeed and that is happening more often.




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