In June 1944, Nazi Germany launched the first of some 12,000 pulse jet powered, gyro-guided glider bombs, aimed primarily at London and Antwerp.
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Small, inexpensive and pilotless, they were called V-1 Vergeltungswaffen (“vengeance weapons”) by their users, acquiring numerous other unofficial sobriquets, such as “buzz bombs” (after the sound their pulse jet engines gave off), “divers” and “doodle bugs.” This ingenious but desperately conceived weapon ultimately failed to win the war for the Germans, but its indiscriminate targeting — one had no clue as to where it would strike until the fuel ran out and it went into its final dive — made it an effective engine of terror for the civilians who constituted its most frequent targets.
In October 2022, waves of another cheap, simple terror weapon descended on civilian centers throughout Ukraine. The Russians who launched them named them Geran (“geranium”) 2, but weapons experts identified them as being of Iranian origin, under the name of Shahed (“witness”) 136.
In December 2020 HESA (the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company) unveiled the Shahed 136 as a two-blade propeller-driven loitering munition drone. A cropped delta with stabilizing rudders at the wingtips, the pilotless aircraft has a wingspan of 8.2 feet. is 11 feet long and bears a superficial appearance to an upside-down paper airplane of the kind folded and thrown in schoolrooms by naughty pupils. This little 440-pound flier is serious business, however, with a warhead packed with 88 pounds of explosives. Moreover, its 50-hp MADO MD-550 pusher engine, believed to be a reverse-engineered German-designed Limbach L550E (itself based on the classic Volkswagen engine), gives it a range of 1,118 to 1,553 miles, giving it a lot of loiter time until a target is selected, acquired and attacked.
According to a recent report from Ukrainian military expert Oleksandr Kovalenko in the Odesa Journal, the Russians have put their own stamp on the Shahed 136s they have imported by replacing its Iranian inertial navigation guidance system with their own GLONASS control modules. This modification has given the Russians grounds to call the Geran-2 an indigenous weapon and for the Iranians to deny that they are selling Shaheds to them, but that is circumstantially contradicted by a recent boast by Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that “one of the world’s leading powers uses Iranian-made weapons.”
The Shahed 136’s debut pre-dated its official unveiling. In 2019 one struck a Saudi Aramco oil plant. In 2020 the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps supplied them to Houthi rebels in Yemen. It was more recently used by the Iranians against Iraqi Kurdish separatists in September and October 2022, including a strike on their headquarters. Although small and slow — about 115 mph — the killer drone’s composite structure, small size and ability to fly at low altitudes makes it difficult to track on radar. Equally problematic is its standard launch racks, carrying five on military or civilian trucks, which are launched using RATO (rocket assist takeoff). Unlike the German V-1s, which had special launchers in static positions for the Allies to seek out and destroy, the Shahed 136s can be fired in barrages of five from the trucks, which can then quickly move on.
The Shahed’s modest price, an average of $20,000, has been an asset in itself. As with the Japanese Kikusui (“floating chrysanthemums”), waves of suicide planes sent against U.S. Navy ships off Okinawa in 1945, scores of Shaheds can be shot down, but only a fraction of them need make it through to wreak fearful destruction. In Ukraine’s case, moreover, the Russians are not particular about what or who they hit, echoing the V-1’s terror element by making civilian targets fair game.
Launched from Crimea, the first Geran-2 was shot down at Kupiansk, Kharkiv Oblast. Swarms soon followed. On the night of Oct. 5, they struck the barracks of the 72nd Mechanized Brigade in Bilatserkva. Rodion Kulahim, commander of the 92nd Brigade, reported the destruction of four howitzers and two BTR armored personnel carriers during a “kamikaze drone” strike.
Like the V-1, the Geran-2 soon acquired other names, such as “the Aramco killer” for its strike on the Saudi oil facility, “moped” and “lawnmower” for the loud sound its engine makes and “Dorito” for its shape. Ukraine, however, faces a serious dilemma in its quest to neutralize this threat. It could use guided missiles like the FIM-92 Stinger, Piorun and Starstreak, but in doing so would use up vastly more expensive anti-aircraft weaponry needed against other adversaries. An alternative is radar-directed anti-aircraft artillery such as the ZSU-23-4 Shilka and the German Gepard, but what is needed most is a surer means of assuring that not one of the massed killers make it through the AA gauntlet.
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 fighters have claimed some Gerans, but on Oct. 13, 2022 a MiG-29 hit one over Vinnytsia, only to encounter one of the hazards that Royal Aircraft fighters had experienced when intercepting V-1 “Divers” over England: the Geran exploded, some of its debris smashed into the MiG-29’s cockpit and the pilot had to eject.
October 2022 has seen the Geran swarms increase and their targets shifted from military to primarily civilian. In one response, during an attack on Kyiv on Oct. 17 in which four civilians were killed, the drones were met — and several destroyed — by sheets of military and civilian gunfire, although the Ukrainian minister of internal affairs has urged civilians to stow their personal firearms, take shelter and “leave the matter to law enforcement officers and the military.”
As of this writing, Ukraine has yet to settle on a single truly effective means of countering the Geran-Shahed threat, but, given all the different methods demonstrated thus far, it will probably be just a matter of time before something turns up.
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