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Russia Bet On The Wrong Loitering Munitions

February 27, 2023

The wreckage of a Geran-2’s wing section scrawled with graffiti. The fragment was collected after a wave of attacks on new year’s eve. Via social media.

While the Russian military have employed combat drones throughout the invasion of Ukraine their success has been dubious. Like other aspects of Moscow’s war machine the disappointing course of the war has upended many ideas that underpinned the ground and air force’s advanced weapons fielded in the 2010s. The KUB and Lancet munitions, for example, have either too little range or aren’t available in significant numbers. The ironic part is it took Iranian assistance with the low-cost Geran-series of propeller-driven missiles (classifying them as “loitering munitions” has fallen out of fashion) to further Moscow’s air campaign.

Although Russia’s military-industrial sector and the small companies in its periphery are adept at making combat drones these efforts haven’t paid off on the battlefield. A glaring problem that became too obvious to ignore is the focus on portability and miniaturization rather than lethality. The former characteristics are seen in the KUB loitering munition mass-produced by ZALA Aero, for example, which is lightweight and launched by a single person from a portable sling-loaded catapult. With a range just shy of 20 kilometers, or “not more than 25 km” according to its advertising by Rosoboronexport, and a small fragmentation warhead the KUB has limited effectiveness in a theater where earthen fortifications, dense forest cover, and self-propelled artillery are widespread.

It’s no wonder that Iran’s approach to fielding combat drones–a multitude of different systems for conventional battles–proved indispensable for Russia’s war effort in late 2022. Regardless of their similarity in appearance with the KUB the Gerans are large enough to cover distances reaching 400 km and carry warheads for demolishing entire structures. The results of the last four months are dramatic with Ukraine’s supply of electricity almost halved as successive missile attacks wrecked generators and their substations. Of course, Ukraine’s military have adjusted their tactics to mitigate the threat posed by the Gerans, which are also known as the Shahed-131/136, but as always results are mixed. This became apparent after a more than two week lull from November 18 until December 6 when Ukraine’s armed forces, along with the air force, reported no “kamikaze drone” sightings or attacks. The surprising pause fueled speculation the onset of winter and its climatic impact had an adverse effect on the Gerans’ deployment.

The assumption was disproved by December 7 when attacks resumed. Based on figures reported by AFU-Stratcom, the public information office of the armed forces, waves of Gerans attacked cities on a weekly basis throughout December until the new year. These didn’t ebb until the period from December 31 until January 2 when as many as 84 were eliminated by Ukrainian air defenses. Below is a tabulation of Geran/Shahed “kills” based on figures reported by AFU-Stratcom, which are shared on social media and other channels, and Ukrainian news agencies. According to AFU-Stratcom a total of 108 Gerans were downed in January but the volume plummeted this month for unknown reasons. On February 25, however, the UK defense ministry assessed the Russians had depleted their stock of one way attack or OWA drones like the Gerans. (Pictured above.)

This is a very dangerous assumption to make as the evidence shows that waves of Gerans are launched weeks apart at unpredictable intervals. (Like what happened in December last year.) Ukrainian estimates on the supply of Gerans also vary and don’t reflect the numbers used against them. As an example, in November 2022 the air force claimed “over 400” Gerans had been launched up until that point, yet the AFU-Stratcom data revealed a little over half the number downed when the air force reported “most drones were shot down.”

December 1
Dec 2
Dec 3
Dec 4
Dec 5
Dec 6
Dec 714
Dec 8
Dec 9
Dec 1010
Dec 11
Dec 12
Dec 13
Dec 141013
Dec 15
Dec 16
Dec 17
Dec 18
Dec 193530Kyiv
Dec 20
Dec 21
Dec 22
Dec 23
Dec 24
Dec 25
Dec 26
Dec 27
Dec 28
Dec 29131111Kharkiv
Dec 3016
Dec 31

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