The Iranian military has launched a wave of drones at Israel. While the total amount of drones and the intended targets of this attack are unknown, all available evidence suggests that this swarm is composed of Shahed loitering munitions. For nearly two years, these drones have been a fixture of Moscow’s air raids on Ukrainian cities. These drones should viewed as a symbol of the shared threats seen among the United States’ allies abroad and the increased technical cooperation within the axis of authoritarian powers.

After months of importing Shahed-136 drones, the Russian Federation began producing its own clone of the UAV formally known as the “Geran-2.” On April 2, the Ukrainian military destroyed a Shahed factory in Tatarstan, Russia. The strike was achieved using a Cessna-type aircraft modified for unmanned flight and carrying an explosive payload. A video shared after the attack features a young Kenyan woman who worked in the facility referring to the Ukrainian military as “barbarians.” Investigative reporting from 2023 suggests that the parent company of the facility has used academic exchanges for foreign students in Russia as a cover for employing African minors in the factory.

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The Shahed-136 is an Iranian-designed loitering munition that has been utilized by the Russian military since late 2022. The drone itself is a simple and relatively unsophisticated design: the craft is guided by a rudimentary computer (which can include Western-produced semiconductors), powered by a two-stroke engine, and holds a 110-pound warhead in its nose. This drone is designed to be launched in swarms of five through a truck-mounted rack. For the Russian military, the Shahed provides a cost-effective means of striking stationary targets and overwhelming Ukrainian air defenses. Unlike the anti-tank “Lancet” UAV and the smaller quad-copter drones seen along the line of contact, the Shahed is almost exclusively used against cities and civilian targets.

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Kyiv has been battling a Russian land assault on its northeastern Kharkiv region since May 10, when thousands of troops stormed the border, making their biggest territorial advances in 18 months.

Ukrainians have given the Shahed the nickname “moped” due to the loud buzzing sound produced by its engine (Ukrainian Telegram channels often issue warnings of “incoming mopeds”). Just like British civilians during Germany’s V-1 rocket attacks in World War II, Ukrainians have learned to recognize a low, distant buzz as a sign of impending danger.

The Ukrainian military has adapted its air defense strategies to counter the frequent Shahed attacks on cities like Dnipro, Kyiv, and Kharkiv. Given the combination of the drone’s loud engine, low cruising altitude, and slow flight speed, it is possible to use a relatively “analogue” means of air defense to intercept the Shahed. The Ukrainian air force has deployed teams of drone-hunters equipped with truck-mounted searchlights and DShK machine-guns as the first line of defense. The usage of these teams allows Kyiv to reserve its expensive (and increasingly limited) inventory of air defense missiles for larger threats like cruise missiles and military aircraft.

Having met fierce resistance in the Kyiv region and throughout eastern Ukraine during the opening weeks of the invasion, the Russian military has spent nearly two years using weapons like the Shahed against Ukrainian civilians and soft-targets. Iran has undoubtedly internalized lessons from these attacks. We can assume that the Shahed-136 will be used by the Iranians to overwhelm and deplete Israel’s air defenses prior to strikes from later, more sophisticated missiles.

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Rather than pushing for Ukrainian capitulation or American isolation, Washington should work with its European partners to limit the avenues of cooperation between Moscow and Tehran and give our allies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East the tools they need for victory.

This article has been reprinted with the authors’ permission. You can read the original here.

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