There seems to be disagreement on a new element in the war between Ukraine and the invading Russian army. While some media reports in recent weeks have sounded alarms about the punishing potential of Iran’s drones being deployed by Russia for strikes in Ukraine, US officials have shrugged off the craft as rather rinky-dink contraptions prone to dysfunction, and of only limited concern.
Given the conspicuous role of perception-influencing propaganda in the conflict, clashing views of how the reputedly formidable Iranian drones have been performing isn’t surprising. Solicited from Teheran by Moscow over the summer as Russia’s own aerial assets began running short, Iran-supplied Shadeed-136 drones initially worried US officials, who said what little was known about the UAVs suggested they might be capable of halting Ukraine’s stunning counter-offensive that has recaptured huge swaths of territory in the east of the nation.
Echoes of that fretting were heard in a Bloomberg story over the weekend about the financial and military efficiency of Russia-flown drones from Iran battering Ukraine targets, particularly the Black Sea city of Odessa. That account, along with others, stoked worries about whether Ukraine’s inspiring defense against much larger and better equipped Russian army might be facing new, serious trouble.
Probably not, said US officials addressing a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contract Group in Brussels last week. They described the Iranian Shaheed-136 drones now being deployed by Russia against Ukraine as vastly over-rated offensive craft hardly worthy of a hi-tech appellation.
“Actually, contrary… (to) a lot of public perception, those UASs or whatever you want to call them are not that high tech,” said US Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante. “(M)any of them are things you can just buy off the shelf.”
Read: Ukraine claims one of Russia’s Iran-built suicide drones shot down
Of course, that can also be said – literally – of thousands of consumer drones Ukraine fighters have deftly used to keep invading Russian forces at bay – and more recently as reconnaissance tools to assist their stunning counter-offensive launched last month. Though Kyiv has also been backed up by military-grade UAVs and other tech from the US and other allied governments, the contrast between the success Ukraine has had exploiting aerial vehicles at its disposal and Russia’s far less effective use of similar craft has been stark.
Moreover, that imbalance has shifted even farther in Ukraine’s favor as an invasion Moscow initially thought would be completed in two days has ground on, depleting Russia’s military and consumer drone reserves, and forcing it to appeal to Iran to procure Shaheed-136 UAVs.
Indeed, the Department of Defense’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Sasha Baker, told the Brussels meeting that Moscow’s procurement of Iranian drones was less a threat to reversing military momentum against Ukraine than it was a sign of Moscow running out of decent options to solve the deepening mess it created for itself.
“(F)rankly, you know, what I think it speaks to is not some kind of technological advance but actually, you know, a bit of desperation on the part of the Russians,” Baker said. “(W)e have seen some evidence already that the UAVs associated with the transfer from Iran have already experienced numerous failures on the battleground – on the battlefields in Ukraine. So I think the idea that they represent some sort of technological leap ahead, frankly, we’re just not seeing borne out in the data.”
Read: Original Luke Skywalker actor joins Ukraine’s Army of Drones effort
To back that impression up, the Ukrinform site on Sunday published an item on the result of Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s Mykolaiv region using Iranian drones the previous night. Though only a 24-hour snapshot, the report didn’t exactly evoke a scenario of Iran’s game-changing tech turning Russia into the master of Ukraine skies.
“Russian-occupation forces attacked Mykolaiv region with seven Shahed-136 kamikaze drones,” it stated. “Five out of seven Shahed-136 drones were destroyed by the members of the Odesa anti-aircraft missile brigade and the Kherson anti-aircraft missile brigade.”