The success of the Normandy landings in June 1944 brightened the mood in London, but some people worried that Germany would lash out in revenge. One morning, on the Isle of Dogs, William Regan heard a small plane fly over and get shot down, causing a surprisingly large explosion. The same thing happened to another plane, and another. ‘I said to Alf that the gunners were on form, three over, three down. Hardly credible. We began to discuss the possibility of them not being planes, as we could see flames coming from the tails of them, also a light in the nose.’
According to Philip Ziegler, in London at War (1995), when waves of Hitler’s first Vergeltungswaffe, the V-1, began hitting the city, most people – the initially elated gunners were the exception – worked out right away what kind of weapon they were. They called them pilotless planes. Later they called them buzz bombs, robot bombs or doodlebugs. In the 1990s we would have called them cruise missiles; these days, we’d call them suicide drones. (Elizabeth Bowen did refer to them at the time as ‘droning things’.) It wasn’t just London. My mother, then a six-year-old child in Essex, remembers hearing their distinctive putt-putt overhead. She learned that when the engine cut out, the V-1 began its terminal glide. If that happened after it passed, it wasn’t going to hit you.
Those early Nazi drones, launched from mainland Europe, killed thousands of people, caused heavy destruction in towns and cities already partly ruined by conventional bombing, and badly hurt morale in London, where V-1s and V-2 rockets destroyed or damaged more than a million houses. Hundreds of thousands of children were evacuated. The uncanny remoteness of drone warfare, brought home in the 2000s by footage of suspected terrorists and harmless civilians being blown up by US drones whose pilots were safe a continent away, was already present in wartime London. Ziegler quotes Evelyn Waugh: ‘No enemy was risking his life up there. It was as impersonal as a plague, as though the city was infested with enormous, venomous insects.’
Eight decades separate the V-1 from the delta-winged Shahed-136, the Iranian suicide drone being launched in waves by Russia against Ukraine’s cities and energy infrastructure, but they have much in common. They’re slow, easy to spot by day and loud, with a distinctive sound: the Shahed-136, driven by a piston engine and a propellor, emits a reedy snarl that has led Ukrainians to nickname it ‘the moped’. Mopeds can be shot down not just by anti-aircraft missiles but also by the same old-school weapons mid-20th-century Britain had at its disposal – basically any rapid-firing gun with shells thicker than а thumb. After footage appeared of Ukrainian policemen taking aim at the drones from the streets of Kyiv with automatic rifles, the authorities warned people not to have a go with small arms.
The Shahed-136 is so slow and lumbering that even a Second World War-era fighter aircraft such as the Spitfire would have a chance of knocking it out of the sky, as happened to many V-1s. Military geeks insist that weapons like this aren’t technically drones, but ‘loitering munitions’, designed to hang around over a target area until they find what they’re looking for, then dive into it and explode. To do this, the Shahed-136 would need to be fitted with cameras and controlled remotely by a human pilot. It’s not clear whether the versions supplied to Russia work this way or simply fly loudly and ponderously towards a preset point, crash and detonate their warhead – which would make them, essentially, crap missiles. It has been suggested the Shahed-136’s small size, shape, low metal content and lack of a heat signature make it hard for anti-aircraft sensors to detect, but since Russia began launching Shahed-136s at cities in Ukraine, starting with Odesa in September, the Ukrainian air force claims to have shot down more than two hundred.
If the weapon is so slow and vulnerable, why is it so threatening to Ukraine? Russia has killed people with the Shahed-136s, and caused serious damage, but Ukraine has been under continual bombardment by far more sophisticated Russian missiles for eight months. Not a night has passed since February without buildings being hit and people killed by unmanned weapons. The particular menace to Ukraine in this new stage of Russian punitive strikes is partly to do with economics.
The key advantage of the Shahed-136 is that it is, for a long-range missile, extremely cheap – cheap not just in its ticket price, estimated at about $20,000, but in the underlying reasons for the cost, namely that it’s low-tech, quick and relatively straightforward to mass produce, using components that are easy to source, even for a country under Western sanctions. Ukraine may have shot down more than two hundred, but according to Ukrainian intelligence Moscow has procured ten times as many and is expected to set up a local production line. Certainly Ukraine has an incentive to talk up the numbers, and to talk up the spectre of Iran for an American audience, but the nature of the weapon is more significant than the size of the order.
The Shahed-136 – its name is Persian for ‘witness’, as in ‘I bear witness that there is no god but God’ – is launched from a rack of five on the back of a simple truck, can fly for hundreds of miles and, in an important advance on the V-1, can hit a fixed target fairly accurately, either because it’s steered by a remote human operator looking at a screen, or because it’s following a course set by the kind of basic satnav unit you find in consumer electronics. It’s not designed to be used in ones and twos, but in waves. Its slow speed, defencelessness and lack of manoeuvrability are outweighed by the swarm effect. A defender protecting a static object may successfully swat away most of a multitude of attackers with missiles, guns and fighters, but, in the end, at least one enemy warhead is likely to get through. If the target survives, the attacker launches another wave. Each Shahed-136 is expendable, just like the civilians on the ground. Eventually the waves will overcome.
Before Putin’s Iranian drone offensive, Ukrainians had reason for optimism. Their army has liberated most of the north-east Kharkiv region, slogging its way across the river valleys to push the Russians back. In the south-west, near the Black Sea, Ukrainian forces are squeezing the Russian bridgehead in Kherson city, on the western bank of the Dnieper. Russia’s efforts to rebuild its shattered army through mobilisation started badly. In Russian towns and cities, police pulled men off the streets and handed out call-up papers seemingly in a random effort to fill quotas. Pensioners were drafted, as were blind people, asthmatics and single parents. Ukrainian troops are capturing freshly conscripted Russian soldiers who were sent straight into battle without proper training. Big cities behind the front line were still being hit by advanced Russian missiles, but many places, particularly Kyiv itself, were getting hit less often, and a fragile sense of stability was emerging. Analysts suggested Russia was exhausting its stockpiles of cruise and ballistic missiles, and Ukraine was about to get sophisticated anti-missile systems from the West – such as the state of the art German Iris-T – that would, it was hoped, protect the cities against whatever Russia had left.
Then the mopeds arrived. By all accounts, the Iris-T works well. It shoots things down. But each Iris-T missile costs about $400,000, as much as twenty Shahed-136s, and the German weapon takes correspondingly longer to make. Ukraine, the West and indeed Russia itself vested their hopes in armaments that are like hand-built luxury sports cars. Now they see the promise and peril of the mass-produced hatchbacks of the arms world, offered by countries like Iran, Turkey, Korea and Israel. One of the disheartening effects of swarm attacks, for Ukraine’s defenders, is that Russia can use waves of cheap Shahed-136s to eke out its remaining stock of high-tech weapons, combining the two to swamp defences.
On 18 October footage emerged on social media of a Russian attack on Ukraine’s largest thermal power station, TETs-6, which uses gas – Russian gas, of course – to generate electricity and hot water for households in Kyiv. It’s a superb autumn day; the camera looks across a tributary of the Dnieper and a forest shining gold in the sun towards the mighty blocks of TETs-6, with its cooling towers and its red and white striped chimney. There’s a roaring sound, and the camera swings to take in the tiny black stick of a modern Russian cruise missile streaking towards the power station. Just before impact, it explodes in a fireball – intercepted, it seems, by a Ukrainian anti-missile missile. A success, but too late – the power station is already on fire from another missile that got through a little earlier. Was the weapon that started the fire another cruise missile, or a Shahed-136 that snuck in while Ukrainian sensors were busy elsewhere? Either way, it was more than Ukrainian defences could handle.
Iran was one of the first countries to develop armed drones. It stuck rocket-propelled grenade launchers onto a domestically designed machine called the Mohajer-1 during the war with Iraq in the 1980s, when its cities came under bombardment from Iraqi planes and missiles. Since then the country’s engineers have come up with dozens of drone models. Iran supplied drones to its Houthi allies in Yemen in the 2010s; it also equipped its proxies in Iraq. In September 2019, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard launched a drone and cruise missile attack on two vast oil refineries in Saudi Arabia. One Israeli analyst called it ‘the biggest disruption in the history of global oil production’. The billions the Saudis had spent on Western arms failed to protect them from weapons worth a few million.
Much has been made in Berlin, London, Paris and Washington of the Kremlin’s hints that it may use nuclear weapons, a Putin talking point that Elon Musk has been pushing hard. But non-nuclear weapons systems like the Shahed-136 open up other, asymmetric, deniable possibilities for resentful, sanctioned governments. Most developed countries depend for their energy supply on a couple of dozen major sites – oil refineries, power stations, gas terminals. If an innocuous merchant ship passing through the Baltic or the North Sea had a handful of ordinary, secretly armed trucks lashed to its deck, would any Nato country notice? Would the drones be detected or intercepted? If they were launched and hit their targets, could it ever be proven where they originated?
As a threat to Europe, this is creative licence. But using swarms of Shahed-136s and other forms of missile to destroy a country’s energy system, on the eve of winter, is exactly what Russia is doing to Ukraine. By damaging thermal power stations and electricity substations, Russia threatens Ukraine with a future that is dark, possibly cold and possibly without running water, given the essential role of electricity in water distribution. Factories will stop, lifts will fail and trams won’t run. Ukraine is repairing the damage as fast as it can, but it can’t bury its power stations underground. As I write, the authorities are pleading with Ukrainians to minimise electricity use, and have warned them to expect blackouts through the day.
Whether the latest missile campaign will cause Ukraine to beg Russia for mercy, as many Russian nationalists hope, is uncertain. The attacks seem unlikely to help Russia on the battlefield. But they might, as the V-1s did at first in London, cause great individual suffering and a slump in civilian morale. In the longer run, if the heating goes, there will be another exodus of refugees. But there’s a strong chance that it will make the Ukrainians who stay more stubborn and vengeful.
There is another point to Putin’s missile campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure, which is to emphasise his power over the entire country, regardless of what territory his troops control. Speculation in the Western media about whether there is a ceasefire line Ukraine might reluctantly and tacitly accept – a conflict freeze that would involve Ukraine giving up territory – depends on the assumption that Putin would be content to keep only Crimea and parts of the other four Ukrainian regions he claims to have annexed, especially if it comes with a partial lifting of sanctions. Then he would let the rest of Ukraine go its own, free, independent way. Everything Putin has said and done since he came to power suggests this would not be the case. He’s much more likely to take his conquests as the starting point for non-reciprocal demands that Russia be given a permanent say in the way the rest of Ukraine is run. What we may be seeing in Ukraine now, as much as a phase of the war itself, is a preview of how Putin’s Kremlin sees a future intermediate stage between war and peace: when Putin has enlarged Russia at Ukraine’s expense, unilaterally drawn its new border, and continues to bombard unoccupied Ukraine until it agrees formally to the status of vassal.
One certainty is that Ukraine will intensify its efforts to get the means to hit back at Russia with cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and long-range drones of its own. With its Western patrons refusing to let Kyiv have any of their own stocks of long-range weapons, Kyiv has for months been carrying out small-scale strikes on the area of Russia it can reach, notably the city of Belgorod, only a short drive, in peacetime, from Kharkiv. Since the Shahed-136s began to fly, Ukraine has managed to make the lights go out in Belgorod at least once.
More shocking for Russia, and for Putin personally, was the attack – presumably by Ukraine – on the bridge connecting Crimea (deemed by Russia, since it was annexed in 2014, a constituent part of the Russian Federation) with Russia proper. Building it was a pet project of the Russian president; it was the main route for trains carrying armoured vehicles, fuel and ammunition to support the invasion. Indeed, when the Shahed-136 waves began, Putin presented them as reprisal for the attack on the bridge, though any sense of proportionality, never very reasonable in the first place, has long since evaporated.
The bridge is thought to have been attacked with a truck bomb. The other most successful Ukrainian strike on Russian infrastructure in Crimea, on a military airfield in Saka in the summer, destroyed or damaged a large number of Russian warplanes. Anonymous Ukrainian officials said at the time that their country’s special forces had done the job. But had they? In an unusual essay in September, Ukraine’s revered military commander in chief, Valery Zaluzhny, claimed that the airfield had actually been taken out with missiles. Given the distance from the nearest Ukrainian-held territory to Saka, this meant that Ukraine – which has a large and ingenious, if corrupt and underfunded, defence industry – had developed a long-range weapon of its own in secret, and used it.
Zaluzhny’s essay sets out to find what he calls the Russian military ‘centre of gravity’ in its war against Ukraine – that point which, if Ukraine could unbalance it, would cause the invasion to collapse. At first, he argues that the centre is Crimea, which means Ukraine has to recapture the peninsula from Russia. In the end, though, he concludes that Ukraine must make its target something more abstract: Russia’s sense of impunity. If Russia fires long-range (non-nuclear) missiles at Ukraine, in other words, Ukraine must be able to reply in kind. Zaluzhny says the Russian Federation’s strategy is only to pick fights with enemies it deems incapable of damaging its hinterland. Ordinary Russians are able to perceive the war as remote because, physically, it is. Zaluzhny wants Ukraine to show them it isn’t. A ‘balancing out of the range of the means of destruction’, he says, would be ‘a turning point in the war’. Zaluzhny dreams of non-nuclear deterrence of a nuclear power – a strong-nerved move, to say the least.
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