Russia is massively expanding its arsenal of drones, and Moscow's unmanned attacks on Ukraine are likely to only get bigger

  • Drones have played a significant role for both Russia and Ukraine throughout the 18-month war.

  • Russia is increasing its domestic production of drones, including ones similar to Iran's Shaheds.

  • Experts say Moscow could use its expanded arsenal for bigger drone attacks against Ukraine in the coming months.

An almost omnipresent element of the past 18 months of brutal fighting in Ukraine has been drones. Russia increasingly sees these systems as important tools, and as the numbers grow, they're expected to play a greater role in its attacks.

Ukraine has made strides in recent months to boost its arsenal of drones, which it uses for not just combat within its borders but also attacks on Russian territory. But Russia is also boosting its supply of drones, and experts say Moscow's unmanned attacks on both military targets and civilian infrastructure in cities across Ukraine are likely going to get bigger and become more of a challenge for Ukraine's defenders, especially later in the year as the cold weather potentially again makes Ukrainian energy a priority target.

"Regardless of what we see in terms of tactical changes, the Russians will likely intensify the current level of drone strikes that they're doing against Ukraine in the winter," George Barros, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, told Insider.

The Russian drones seen in Ukraine have come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and with varying missions. For example, surveillance drones — like the Orlan-10 — have been used to gather intelligence and jam Kyiv's electronics, while loitering munitions — like the Iranian-made Shahed-136 — have been deployed to terrorize Ukrainian cities and its civilian infrastructure.

The Shaheds are long-range systems that are packed with explosives and can loiter above an area before flying into a target and detonating upon impact like a missile. Moscow first began using these weapons — also known as one-way attack drones — around a year ago after receiving them from Iran, and they quickly became a weapon of choice for Russian President Vladimir Putin's military to target Ukraine's energy grid during the cold winter in an attempt to shatter Kyiv's will to fight.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in early August that Russia had launched nearly 2,000 Shaheds against Ukraine, although a "significant number" were said to have been downed by Kyiv's air-defense systems. This number has since increased, with Moscow continuing to unleash these deadly weapons routinely to strike targets across Ukraine.

A view shows at the site of a residential area hit by a Russian drone and missile strikes strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv region, Ukraine August 30, 2023.
A view shows at the site of a residential area hit by a Russian drone and missile strikes strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv region, Ukraine August 30, 2023.Head of the National Police of Kyiv region Andrii Nebytov via Telegram/Handout via REUTERS

But Russia has also recently begun producing its own domestic version of the Iranian Shahed-136, which Russia calls the Geran-2. Moscow plans to dramatically expand production, according to recent findings by the independent Conflict Armament Research group. There are plans to produce thousands of these in the coming years.

"Since their first introduction to the conflict in September 2022, Shahed single-use UAVs have become a central part of the Russian Federation's campaign in Ukraine," the researchers wrote in an analysis that included visual evidence of their findings in Ukraine. "This new development shows that the Russian Federation now has more than one pathway to still be able to sustain its current attack patterns."

A 'substantial drone force' to cause headaches

And domestic production doesn't stop with the Geran-2s. Russia is also ramping up mass production of larger intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) drones, like the Orlan-10, and smaller first-person view (FPV) drones, such as quadcopters. The latter, however, is more of a private operation, but support is growing.

It is a multi-faceted and unprecedented effort on behalf of various defense enterprises, including small companies, large conglomerates, and volunteer groups, Samuel Bendett, an analyst and expert in unmanned and robotic military systems at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Insider. He said this massive initiative could lead to more large-scale loitering munition attacks and an uptick in strikes by FPV drones and also increase Moscow's battlefield tactical and operational awareness through additional ISR drones.

"So taking all that together, you have a substantial drone force that can cause a significant headache for not just the Ukrainian military," he said, "but also for Ukrainian civilian targets."

Remain of a Russian-made Shahed 136 at an exhibition showing remains of missiles and drones that Russia used to attack Kyiv on May 12, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Remain of a Russian-made Shahed 136 at an exhibition showing remains of missiles and drones that Russia used to attack Kyiv on May 12, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine.Oleksii Samsonov /Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Indeed, Russia has used its arsenal of Iran-provided Shaheds to terrorize Ukraine's cities and the civilians who reside within them and spent much of the past winter targeting the country's energy infrastructure to inflict as much discomfort and fear as possible upon Ukrainians. Weaponizing the winter is not necessarily a new Russian military strategy, but it certainly has Ukraine's civil society scrambling to prepare for a future wave of attacks.

Ukraine's stressed air-defense systems have proven to be quite successful against the Shaheds, but the drones have still managed to at times overwhelm them and reach their intended targets, ultimately resulting in death and destruction. Because of this, US officials say Washington are continuing to prioritize air-defense capabilities in the security assistance packages that it frequently commits to Kyiv. 

"We can see a very substantial impact here, and we can see greater accuracy in attacks," Bendett said of the potential of upcoming large-scale attacks. "We can see indiscriminate attacks as well. We can see greater pressure on Ukrainian air defenses and electronic warfare defenses."

Larger drone attacks could also be explained by a shift in how Russia carries out its high-volume strikes.

Moscow has been increasingly experimenting with a tactic where it will often use its drones to "distract and saturate" Ukraine's air-defense capabilities and absorb the initial interception bandwidth, Barros, the ISW analyst, told Insider. This will be followed by precision guided munitions (PGMs) — like cruise and ballistic missiles — that have more freedom to bypass the distracted air defenses and reach their intended targets.

The Reikartz Hotel in Zaporizhzhia after being struck by a Russian missile
The Reikartz Hotel in Zaporizhzhia after being struck by a Russian missile on August 10, 2023.Ukraine's Ministry of Defense

Drones are weapons Russia can more easily afford to expend. Thanks to Russia's increase in domestic production capabilities and resources provided by foreign partners, it's likely to be easier for Moscow to replace their drones than it is to replenish crucial stocks of more destructive — but more expensive — PGMs, Barros said.

It's not clear how many high-precision missiles Russia has available in its arsenal. A recent assessment from ISW suggested that Moscow had managed to replenish some of its cruise and ballistic missiles since the start of the year, although the totals are still likely less than they were before Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022 thanks to relentless missile barrages targeting Ukrainian cities far from the front lines. 

As the war's second summer begins to fade out and colder weather looms in the not-so-distant future, Ukraine's air defenses are significantly stronger and more formidable than they were in September 2022 due to a substantial influx of Western military aid since then. But it is precisely because of this boost in capabilities that Russia will feel the need to enlarge its attacks, Barros said. And that could, in turn, up the pressure on Ukraine's air defenses.

"If you're a Russian targeter and a campaign planner and you understand that the Ukrainians have stronger air defenses than they did this time a year ago, and if your intent is to conduct an air and missile campaign and a drone strike campaign, then obviously you're going to need a higher volume of fires and better fires in order to overcome the reinforced and augmented Ukrainian defense," Barros said. "And I think this observed pattern with the Russians is likely, in part, designed to help offset Ukraine's increased air defenses."

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