Putin Should Be Very Worried About Ukraine’s New Kamikaze Drone

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Twitter

The war in Ukraine is no stranger to drones, but the kamikaze drone strike on the Russian city of Rostov last week marked the beginning of a whole chapter in drone warfare. A small ramshackle Ukrainian drone with a tiny warhead flew across the heavily defended front line and smashed into an oil refinery in Russia on June 22, causing a large fire. Given how cheap it is to make a drone, and its successful evasion of Russian air defenses, Russian officials might soon have to worry about defending oil facilities, supply depots, and military installations deep in Russian territory.

Long-range kamikaze drones are a new threat to Russia. Most observers of the conflict in Ukraine are familiar with the Switchblade drones provided by the U.S., but these have a relatively short range and require operators to direct it onto a target. Kamikaze drones like the one used in the Rostov attack can go hundreds of miles without the need for an operator, and are small enough to slip by much of Russia’s air defense, which is designed to detect and engage fighter jets and missiles. With the use of GPS and inertial guidance systems, a Ukrainian operator would simply need to give the drone a point on the map before sending it on its way.

For Russia, the biggest concern is that Ukraine can make these cheaply and easily. Press reports claim the drone used in the Rostov attack was produced by Ukraine or a was model available on the internet for less than $10,000. Airframes, engines, and guidance systems could all be bought commercially and assembled without too much technical expertise. The payloads are likely small and the drone can’t re-adjust if the coordinates are wrong, but it costs a fraction of its American and Turkish-made counterparts and can do millions of dollars in damage if it hits a fuel tank or sets fire to a docked naval vessel. Depending on the final unit cost, Ukrainian drones could conceivably be cheaper than the missiles Russia would use to shoot them down.

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For Ukraine, long-range Kamikaze drones fill a capability gap. Ukraine needs to use one of its few remaining ballistic missiles or risk a million-dollar drone like a TB2 Bayraktar to achieve the same level of damage from the front lines. President Joe Biden is famously reticent about providing Ukraine with missiles that can strike Russian territory out of a fear of escalation. The U.S. has offered MQ-1C Grey Eagle drones, but Ukrainian officials are reportedly nervous about accepting them on the basis that such a high-profile weapon might be shot down quickly if used near the front lines.

Ukraine would not be the first actor to use Kamikaze drones to coerce stronger power. In Yemen, the Iran-supported Houthis have been successfully using similar types of drones for years. Saudi Arabia and the UAE field more sophisticated air defense systems than Russia to cover a smaller front, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. In 2019, a single attack on Saudi oil processing facilities by Kamikaze drones halved Saudi oil production overnight. The Houthis even tried to ram a Patriot radar on one occasion, which would have blinded the entire battery. The attacks are such a concern for the Gulf states that limiting the use of drones is reportedly a major point of contention in ongoing peace talks between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis.

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The prospect of a coercive drone war like the one in Yemen is vexing for Moscow. Should Ukraine start buying or producing Kamikaze drones en masse, Kyiv would be able to launch dozens of attacks on military targets across Russian-occupied Ukraine—and Russia itself—without external help. With modern commercial satellite technology, any Russian port, power plant, or supply depot in a vast radius becomes a potential target if Ukraine chooses to escalate. Faced with this threat, Putin would have to decide between keeping his air defense at the front line to support military operations, or to move some air defense systems back to protect sensitive locations across western Russia. Even if they do the latter, the drone is so cheap to make that Kyiv could send swarms of them to overwhelm Russian air defenses.

At the moment, kamikaze drones are causing Russia and Saudi Arabia a headache, but U.S. and European policymakers should take note as well. Given the ease with which they can be produced and the scope of the damage they have caused, it might not be long before every irregular conflict sees the weaker side building a rudimentary drone fleet of their own.

For some, the future of drone warfare is not some sophisticated array of networked drones receiving directions from artificial intelligence, but a series of cheap Hail Marys that just need to get lucky once.

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