Iran’s Kamikaze Drones Take to the Skies Above Ukraine

Ukraine is awash with foreign-made weapons, something that is true of both sides. While Ukraine uses American-made rocket systems, French, German and British artillery pieces, and anti-tank weaponry from across the globe, Russia is resorting to foreign suppliers of its own. This means artillery shells from North Korea and, increasingly, drones from Iran. 

Russia relying on these countries has produced a lot of mockery, some of it justified. Why would a country which claims to be winning its war, with an economy unaffected by sanctions, request resupply from North Korea – a nation whose entire economy is the size of an American city? But on drones, at least, the Russian strategy does not appear so ridiculous. The Iranians are no joke – and the appearance of Iranian ‘kamikaze’ drones in the skies above Ukraine in recent weeks is a big concern for the Ukrainians. 

American officials believe that the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East comes from Iran and its network of proxies. Each have made themselves more deadly by their use of drones and ballistic missiles. 

Iranian-made drones are increasingly used by Hezbollah to antagonise Israel on land and at sea. Israeli leaders struggle to react to this. Do they waste their million-dollar Patriot missiles shooting down rickety drones bought for a few hundred dollars? Or do they decide to bomb, yet again, those sites in Syria where Iran’s militias are based? 

Iranian ballistic missiles are also fired – and drones launched – from Yemen at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This campaign has included attacks on Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and has – largely under-reported in the West – meant serious warfare against the Saudi oil economy. Iran’s drones and missiles have hit refineries, logistics centres and tankers at sea, and caused millions if not billions of dollars in damage. 

On the battlefield, any conclusions are less certain. The US claims Iran used five drones to attack its Syrian base at al-Tanf in 2021 – although there were no casualties. Israel says that Hamas has started using Iranian drones in conflicts in Gaza – although if that’s true, they have hardly changed the world. But there are reasons for Ukraine and the West to worry. 

Kamikaze drones – or suicide drones, if you prefer — appear an Iranian speciality. They are now beginning to appear in Ukraine. The Ukrainians have already released footage of them slamming, like the V1 rockets which tormented London in the latter days of the Second World War, into civilian areas of Ukrainian cities, where they will – if more widely used – cause many civilian casualties. 

Ukraine calls the drone supply ‘evil’ and has broken off diplomatic contact with Iran because of it. Its armed forces also claim to have shot down many of these drones already – and have released footage of that, too. 

On the battlefield, things are still unknown. In theory, these drones are ideal for Russian purposes. They might be able to take on Ukrainian artillery positions, and possibly even the rocket systems and self-propelled guns that have previously escaped Russian fire; and which have so impeded Russia’s artillery advantage. HIMARS and other systems can fire their rockets at Russian ammo dumps and be off within minutes. In theory, a sky filled with suicide drones might negate that advantage. 

But Ukraine may soon have a new weapon to defeat Russian drones and missiles: Western standard air defence and radar systems, which are expected to soon appear in Ukrainian hands for the first time. Within the last few days, what started as hints from local commanders was first confirmed and subsequently walked back by Ukraine’s president Zelensky: Ukraine may soon begin to receive NASAMS – high-tech air defence systems – from the United States and others. 

This would be a significant change. Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine has had a deficit of certain kinds of air defence. They can shoot down aircraft fairly effectively with weapons held by ordinary soldiers – and the Russian air force has been circumspect and ineffective since the war began. 

Drones were always another thing. Individual Ukrainian units launched crowdfunding campaigns to buy weaponry designed to combat Russian drones from the beginning of the war. Now a new problem has emerged. What will happen next is unknown. Ukraine will, when their delivery is finalised, by thankful for the NASAMS, but as Zelensky said in an interview on CBS:  

‘Believe me, it’s not even nearly enough to cover the civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals, universities, homes of Ukrainians.’ 

As Iran’s regional rivals have already found, drones do not need to be expensive or sophisticated to cause chaos. There just need to be a lot of them. The history of Iran’s drone programme complements the Russian desire to attack soft civilian targets, assuming that even abundant air-defence systems cannot protect every inch of Ukraine’s cities. 

We cannot know what will happen next. But if Ukraine gets what it has asked for, there will be a test of two systems: a feared Iranian drone programme will face Nato-built attempts to defeat it. The Ukrainians will hope any new systems will have as great an impact as other Nato weapons – which were long-delayed, significantly put-off, but eventually proved dramatic and decisive on the battlefield. 

This piece was originally published in The Spectator.

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