Iranian Drones in Ukraine: Warm-up for Israel?
Russia’s use of Iranian-made, unmanned drones in its war against Ukraine is forcing Israel to step up its own defenses against such weapons, as analysts warn that Ukraine is a testing ground for a future Iranian war against Israel.
Since the first Iranian combat drones arrived in Russia in August 2022, Russian forces have launched hundreds of them from long distances, targeting vital Ukrainian infrastructure, including electricity and water facilities. Although Ukrainians have shot down up to 80 percent of the drones, enough of them hit their targets, leaving hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians without power.
The drones include the Shahed-136, with a range of up to 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles). It can carry up to 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives and can be launched in rapid-fire succession to create kamikaze “drone swarms” that can overwhelm Ukraine’s—and possibly Israel’s—air defenses.
Drone warfare is cost effective: Each Iranian drone costs around $20,000. By comparison, each F-35 Lightning II, the most advanced fighter jet in the world, costs approximately $100 million—which would buy more than 4,700 drones. Russia is believed to have ordered approximately 2,000 drones from Iran, including larger, more lethal models.
In October 2022, Israeli President Isaac Herzog shared intelligence with the United States about these drones. “This is only the tip of the iceberg of a lot of intelligence information,” Herzog said. “The fact that Iran, following its activities in killing its own citizens, in working towards nuclear weapons endlessly, endangering the entire world and the region—and now killing innocent civilians in Ukraine, clearly that gives you a picture of what Iran is all about and that was the main point of my meeting with President Biden.”
Middle East analysts Michael Knights and Alex Almeida warned that Iran is using its supply of drones to Russia to improve its own offensive drone warfare capabilities against Israel. “Ukraine is an environment in which Russia is subsidizing Iran’s military experimentation, making the process not only free for Iran but potentially profitable,” they wrote. “In an environment where not dozens but hundreds of drones are being used each month, Iran will learn important lessons about the saturation of defenses and the exhaustion of more expensive and slower-to-build air defense systems. These lessons will be extremely useful for Lebanese Hezbollah as it plans methods to swarm Israel’s defensive systems.”
Israel is vulnerable to drone warfare. Ukraine’s landmass is 27 times larger than Israel’s, and Ukraine’s population is spread throughout the country. By contrast, nearly 50 percent of Israel’s population is concentrated in a single area, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa metropolitan region. In a future war, Iran can be expected to attack this densely populated area with thousands of rockets, missiles, and drones and cause massive destruction of life, property, and infrastructure.
“We must remember that the Iranians helping the Russians in their fight against Ukraine can lead the Russians to allow the Iranians to act against Israel through the Golan Heights,” Yitzhak Barik, a reserve Israel Defense Forces general, recently warned. “We also need to understand that Iranian drones of the type that Russia purchased from Iran have long been in the hands of Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Israel needs to do more than pay attention; it needs to think about how to win a war against such a threat.”