Remain of a Russian-made Shahed 136 at an exhibition showing remains of missiles and drones that Russia used to attack Kyiv on May 12, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Oleksii Samsonov /Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images
Russia is trying to make its exploding drones deadlier, according to leaked documents.
The documents, obtained by The Washington Post, detail efforts to bolster their UAV program.
Moscow is attempting to make a deadlier, more advanced variant of the Iran’s Shaheds.
Russia has hammered Ukraine with deadly explosive-laden one-way attack drones, relying on the Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles to bombard enemies on the battlefield and strike inside cities like Kyiv. Now, leaked documents show Russia plans to build its own drones and is exploring a deadlier variant able to strike autonomously.
The documents obtained by The Washington Post detail Russian efforts to bolster their UAV capabilities in Ukraine with manufacturing assistance from Iran. These include efforts to domestically build 6,000 drones by summer 2025, including new variants of the Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones much more capable than the current model.
The Post reported that as part of Russia’s secret drone project, which is conducted at a facility where workers’ passports are confiscated to keep them from leaving the country and messages use coded language, Russia is looking to develop a version of the Shaheds — or as they call them, the Geran-2s — that is more advanced and deadlier than Iran’s.
These drones would have the ability to coordinate and conduct attacks, including swarm attacks, with autonomy, presumably relying on artificial intelligence. Right now, Shahed-136s are programmed with a target before launch.
Ukraine has also been experimenting with better drones, including AI-enabled drones that are more resistant to jamming.
The Iranian-made Shahed-136s that Russia uses are a kind of loitering munition with a range of around 1,250 miles. They operate differently than a drone despite being commonly referred to as one. Packed with an explosive payload, these weapons fill a gap between drones and cruise missiles, flying around an area before locating a target and slamming into it.
Although a single Shahed-136 may not do significant damage, a swarm has the potential to prove devastating.
Shahed-136s are also relatively cheap to develop and deploy, meaning there’s an asymmetric advantage to using the loitering munition to hit certain targets as opposed to more expensive cruise missiles, which cost millions of dollars as opposed to tens of thousands.
Russia began receiving shipments of Iranian Shahed-136s, last summer and has been using them regularly, often against civilian infrastructure in cities. If Russia is able to develop a larger, stronger arsenal, it may be able to attack more frequently with far greater numbers of these exploding drones.
The development of a better UAV force could help Russia better supplement its limited precision guided munitions and allow them to hit harder behind enemy lines.