EXPLANATION: Killer drones are fighting for supremacy over Ukraine

They are accurate, small in size, capable of effectively penetrating air defenses when fired in groups and above all, they are cheap.

In Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, killer drones have cemented their reputation as powerful, cost-effective weapons that can seek out and destroy targets while spreading the kind of terror that can undermine the resolve of soldiers and civilians alike.

They are also quickly outstripping projectiles as the ranged weapon of choice. Known as “poor man’s cruise missiles,” flying death machines can flood any theater of combat much more cheaply.

Russia’s unleashing of successive waves of Iranian-made Shahed drones over Ukraine has multiple goals – taking out key targets, crushing morale, and ultimately drying up the enemy’s war chest and weapons as they try to take them out.


The Shahed unmanned aerial vehicles, rebranded by Russia as Geran-2, are what are known as stray munitions, which are also in Ukraine’s arsenal.

Loaded with explosives, they are pre-programmed with the target’s GPS coordinates. They can then roam overhead and jump on the nose to kill. It is reminiscent of the World War II-era Japanese kamikaze pilots who used their explosive-laden planes to ram American warships and aircraft carriers during the Pacific War.

According to Ukrainian online publication Defense Express, citing Iranian data, the delta-winged Shahed is 3.5 meters (11½ feet) long, 2.5 meters (8 feet, 3 inches) wide and weighs about 200 kilograms (440 pounds). It is powered by a 50 horsepower engine with a top speed of 185 km/h (114 mph).

The drone has previously been used in Yemen and in a deadly attack on an oil tanker last year, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

And while its range is about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), drone expert Samuel Bendett of the CNA think tank said the Shahed is being used in Ukraine at much shorter ranges. That’s because its GPS guidance system — which is susceptible to jamming — isn’t very robust.

It is known that the Shahed were controlled by the Iranians via radio. It is unclear whether Russia is capable of doing the same in the Ukrainian theater.

Because they are cheap and plentiful, Russia is able to flood Ukraine with Shaheds without risking the lives of pilots or risking sophisticated aircraft.

In Monday’s attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said 28 drones were in waves of successive attacks. Fired from truck launchers in rapid succession, the drones can fly low and slow, better avoiding radar detection.

They don’t technically swarm, Bendet noted. That kind of sophisticated drone technology exists – when multiple unmanned aerial vehicles communicate with each other. Instead, Shahed simply launches in groups to overwhelm defenses, especially in civilian areas. “They know that most will not make it through,” he said.

However, their power to terrorize exceeds their explosive power.

According to Mykola Bielieskov, a researcher at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, the Shahed carries just 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of explosive charge, which pales in comparison to the explosive force that a conventional missile’s 480-kilogram (1,050-pound) warhead can deliver at a much larger range.

“It is difficult to hit serious targets with such drones,” said Bielieskov.


At just $20,000 apiece, the Shahed is a fraction of the cost of a full-size missile. For example, Russia’s Kalibr cruise missiles, which were widely deployed in the eight months of the war, cost the Russian military about $1 million each.

At such a low cost, Shahed has been effectively used to saturate targets, be it fuel storage or infrastructure and utilities such as power or water stations. Russia has used them precisely in conjunction with intelligence drones to attack Ukrainian artillery, Bendett said.

Despite its small size, Shahed’s explosive charge seems powerful enough to do damage. In Monday’s attacks, one drone hit an operations center while another crashed into a five-story apartment building, tearing a large hole in it and collapsing at least three apartments, resulting in the deaths of three people.

Bielieskov of Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies said Russia is now targeting civilian targets rather than battlefield targets because Ukrainian forces have “learned how to fight them effectively,” intercepting just over half of them.

With no immediate end in sight, the financial burden of the conflict will weigh heavily on Moscow, which is not receiving billions in arms transfers from Western countries such as Ukraine. As the conflict essentially becomes a conflict of attrition—who can sustain that human, material, and financial burden the longest—the key will be finding cheaper but still powerful weapons.

“Shahed-136 is a low-cost version of a cruise missile, which Russia cannot produce quickly,” Bielieskov said.

Taleblu said Russia would likely continue to strengthen its long-range strike capabilities with Iranian drones.

“This should raise the alarm for Europe and the world,” he said.

Russian officials have not released any figures on the number of missiles fired during the conflict, but Ukraine’s defense minister recently said Russia had used up most of its arsenal of high-precision missiles — from 1,844 on the eve of the Russian invasion to 609 by mid-October.


The incessant whirring of propeller-driven Shahed drones – which fighters call “mopeds” and “mowers” – can terrify anyone in its flight path, as no one on the ground knows exactly when and where the weapon will strike.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seized on the element of drone terror, posting on social media: “All night and all morning, the enemy is terrorizing the civilian population.”

Bielieskov acknowledged that the Shahed drone strikes are raising fears that Ukraine’s air defenses are inadequate. But he said their use — even in large numbers — could not reverse Ukraine’s gains on the battlefield.


Follow AP coverage of the war in Ukraine at

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