What are suicide drones? Learn about Iran's Shahed-136 used by Russia in Ukraine -explainer

Russia has been allegedly making use of Iran's Shahed-136 suicide drones in its invasion of Ukraine, but what are these drones? Here is everything you need to know.

 A part of an unmanned aerial vehicle, what Ukrainian military authorities described as an Iranian made suicide drone Shahed-136 and which was shot down near the town of Kupiansk, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, is seen in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released September 13, 2022 (photo credit: THE STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTORATE OF THE UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A part of an unmanned aerial vehicle, what Ukrainian military authorities described as an Iranian made suicide drone Shahed-136 and which was shot down near the town of Kupiansk, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, is seen in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released September 13, 2022
(photo credit: THE STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTORATE OF THE UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Iranian Shahed suicide drones have allegedly been added to the Russian Army's arsenal and deployed in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, with considerable Ukrainian civilian infrastructure damaged by these weapons.

Suicide drones, also known as kamikaze drones and loitering munitions, are an effective tool in the ever-advancing field of drone warfare, and it seems Russia is well aware of their potential in war.

The particular drones Russia is allegedly using are the Shahed-136 drones, made by Iran and sold to Russia for use in Ukraine

Considerable discussion has been raised over just how effective these Iranian drones have actually been in Ukraine. And so far, they have not made broad strategic shifts in the war's course. However, these drones have been responsible for the deaths of many Ukrainian civilians, and fear of them is spreading.

So what are suicide drones? Who makes them and why are they used? Here's what you need to know.

A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 25, 2022. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)A drone is launched during a military exercise in an undisclosed location in Iran, in this handout image obtained on August 25, 2022. (credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY)/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
What are suicide drones?

Suicide drones are, essentially, just another kind of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). However, they serve a different function from other drones, which might be used for reconnaissance or might carry weapons. Those drones are expected to come back after their mission is done. 

By contrast, suicide drones play a role much more akin to cruise missiles. They fly off and aren't supposed to come back, because they're meant to fly to their target and explode. 

These drones aren't necessarily remotely controlled, either. Kamikaze drones like the Shahed-136 are given coordinates and sent off. Unlike cruise missiles, they don't immediately crash into their target.

Some can also loiter in an area until a target can be identified and attacked, hence the term loitering munitions.
By loitering, the weapons can also help control an area, denying access to vulnerable forces.

Kamikaze drones like the Iranian-made Shahed-136 are nothing new. Suicide drones have been used in war for decades, and many countries have their own variants of kamikaze drones.

What is the Iranian drone being used by Russia in Ukraine? How effective are the Shahed-136 suicide drones?

The Shahed-136 suicide drone is an Iranian drone that was allegedly sold to the Russian military for use in Ukraine. 

The Iranian drones are themselves seen as decent and functional, and Iran has used them in Yemen already. They are accurate enough, hard to track with radar and can resist signal jamming to an extent. But what is interesting is that it seems the Russian army isn't using them for their intended purpose.

The military advantage of suicide drones like Iran's Shahed-136 is that they can suppress air defenses with precision strikes.

Russia isn't using the Iranian drones for that purpose. Rather, they're using them to attack cities and civilian infrastructure. Russia is using the suicide drones as if they were cruise missiles — and that might not be the best idea.

 A part of an unmanned aerial vehicle, what Ukrainian military authorities described as an Iranian made suicide drone Shahed-136 and which was shot down near the town of Kupiansk, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, is seen in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released September 13, 2022 (credit: THE STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTORATE OF THE UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) A part of an unmanned aerial vehicle, what Ukrainian military authorities described as an Iranian made suicide drone Shahed-136 and which was shot down near the town of Kupiansk, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, is seen in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released September 13, 2022 (credit: THE STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTORATE OF THE UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Speaking to NPR, retired US Marine Col. Mark Cancian, who is now a Center for Strategic and International Studies senior adviser, said that Russia's strategy seems to be to strike cities to break the morale of the Ukrainian people. But considering how high the Ukrainian morale is, this is likely to not be effective. Not only that, but it will mean that these drones won't be used on Ukraine's military, which has seen considerable success on the battlefield's front lines. 

Aside from how Russia seems to be using them, the Shahed-136 drones have other flaws.

According to Washington Institute associate fellow Farzin Nadimi, speaking to NPR, one big weakness of the drone is that it's very loud. Cancian also pointed out that Iranian suicide drones used in Ukraine are very slow. 

Combined, these two points mean that the Iranian drones are easier to shoot down by defense systems.

Why is Russia using Iranian suicide drones in Ukraine?

Iran continues to deny giving Russia any of its drones for use in Ukraine. However, intelligence reports from the US, UK and Ukraine have all pointed to the contrary.

Russia may have good reason for buying Iran's Shahed drones to use in Ukraine.

Over the course of the war, there have been numerous reports about Russia's diminishing arsenal, with the Russian military suffering severe losses in both personnel and equipment. That includes Russia's supply of missiles.

Due to trade and import embargoes as well as a manpower shortage, Russia has had a difficult time resupplying. But Iranian suicide drones are not only available, but relatively cheap, too.

How Russia will use these suicide drones in Ukraine, and how Ukraine adapts and responds to them, will provide more detail about how kamikaze drones can be used.

Seth J. Frantzman and Michael Starr contributed to this report.