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Height of drone warfare: Russia replicates Iran’s Shahed drones to strike Ukraine

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Russia has started producing and fielding its own domestic replica of the Iranian-made kamikaze drone Shahed-136 to be used against Ukrainian targets at the height of drone warfare between the two countries, according to a London-based arms monitoring group.

Conflict Armament Research (CAR) investigators analyzed the wreckage of two Geran-2 single-use drones that Russians had deployed in Ukraine in July. Their analysis concluded that the design characteristics and key components when compared to other UAVs previously examined in Ukraine, showed that Russia was indeed producing its own domestic version of the Shahed-136 and Shahed-131.

Nearly one year following the initial deployment of Iranian-made UAVs in Ukraine, signs that Russia has embarked on creating domestic versions signify a notable progression in the nation's UAV technology, reinforcing its dependence on single-use UAVs. The shift towards in-house manufacturing further prompts significant inquiries concerning export regulation and counter-diversion measures. Investigators from CAR have identified several elements in the Geran-2 UAVs that were fabricated after the commencement of the extensive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Some media outlets have recently asserted that Russia has intentions to develop a domestic variant of the Shahed UAV by the beginning of 2024. However, evidence uncovered by CAR suggests that this manufacturing process might already be underway.

The remnants of the Geran-2 CAR analyzed led CAR to the conclusion that the Geran-2 drones were manufactured in Russia rather than Iran based on major differences in the airframe construction and in the internal units, including for navigation.

As for the drone’s internal components, CAR found that the Geran-2 UAVs included a satellite navigation unit, a flight control unit, and a starter unit, all marked with identical part labels as belonging to a ‘B’ series. The internal units that CAR documented in the two Geran-2 UAVs in July 2023 appear to be adapted from those observed in Shahed series UAVs in Ukraine.

The Geran-2 follows the same general working principles as the Shahed UAVs, while streamlining and simplifying the UAVs by incorporating solutions directly copied from the Shahed series, together with domestic, battle-tested modules that CAR has previously observed in other Russian weapon systems.

For the first time, CAR has identified that Russia is engaging in the production of homegrown versions of the Iranian Shahed series UAVs. Since being introduced into the conflict in September 2022, the Shahed single-use UAVs have emerged as a crucial component of Russia's efforts in Ukraine. This recent advancement indicates that Russia now possesses multiple avenues to maintain its existing assault strategies, enhancing its flexibility and resilience in the ongoing campaign.

The components observed inside the Geran-2 UAVs by CAR reveal that Russia has managed to extract the essential concepts of the Shahed series UAV, amalgamating new approaches with proven solutions such as the Kometa, previously employed in different weapon systems. This process of simplification and integration indicates that Russia is likely positioned to expedite the production of more Geran-2 UAVs to support its ongoing efforts in Ukraine. Recognizing the pathways by which Russia continues to redirect Western-made crucial parts will subsequently influence its capacity to manufacture and deploy various categories of armaments.

Components discovered within the Geran-2 UAVs by CAR demonstrate that Russia has managed to grasp and implement the essential concepts of the Shahed series UAV. They have achieved a more streamlined functionality by merging novel techniques with existing battle-proven methods, such as those found in the Kometa. These methods have already seen action in various weapon platforms. This development suggests that Russia is likely in a position to ramp up the production of Geran-2 UAVs in support of its ongoing operations in Ukraine. Understanding the methods by which Russia continues to channel Western-manufactured crucial elements will, as a consequence, affect its competence to assemble and employ a diverse range of weaponry.

In contrast, the Iranian Shahed (“Witness”) drones, specifically the 131 and 136 versions, are part of Iran's expanding portfolio of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The Shahed 131 is known for its surveillance capabilities and is primarily used for reconnaissance missions. With its lightweight design, it can provide real-time intelligence and situational awareness.

The Shahed 136, on the other hand, is believed to be a more advanced variant with potentially greater range and payload capacity. It's designed for longer-endurance missions and can carry out both surveillance and combat roles. Reports indicate that the Shahed 136 might be equipped with advanced navigation systems and the ability to carry precision-guided munitions. Both of these UAVs demonstrate Iran's commitment to developing indigenous military technologies and enhancing its aerial capabilities to exert influence and power within the region.

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