How will AI-enabled attack drones shake up the global strategic equation?

In recent months, announcements have multiplied concerning the development of a new generation of attack drones equipped with artificial intelligence, to reinforce their effectiveness, whether in Russia, China, Iran and even in North Korea.

Far from being anecdotal, the arrival of this new generation of drones military long-range, the effectiveness of which has been demonstrated in Ukraine with the Shahed 136, will create a new strike capacity against the enemy's strategic infrastructures, as well as against its defensive system, with effects close to those that can be obtained by the use of nuclear weapons.

While the weapon systems capable of providing effective defense against these new drones are still to be discovered, we can expect that their tactical as well as strategic potential, and a particularly low budgetary and technological entry ticket, will cause a profound upheaval of the global strategic equation established since the end of the Second World War, based solely on nuclear weapons.

The use of Shahed 136 long-range attack drones against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure

From September 2022, a new weapon was launched by Russian forces, alongside traditional ballistic and cruise missiles, to strike the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Dnipro, Kremetchouk, Zaporozhye and Kharkiv. Far from the technological weapons that the West was beginning to deliver to the Ukrainian forces, it was an inexpensive drone, easy to produce, and acquired in large quantities by Russia from Iran, the Shahed attack drone. 136.

Shahed-136 attack drones
The Iranian Shahed 136 long-range attack drone was first revealed in December 2021, and used in combat in Ukraine from September 2022.

For the first time, drones were used to carry out strategic missions, namely to strike civilian infrastructure and even the enemy's population. It had only 2,5 m wingspan and 200 kg, but it was capable of traveling up to 2 km using its MD-000 piston engine, and accurately hitting a target thanks to its satellite guidance, to detonate its military charge of 550 to 30 kg.

Above all, its production price, estimated at around $20 to $40, was incommensurate with that of the cruise missiles used until then by Moscow, such as the Kalibr and the Kh-000, but also with that of the missiles used for counter it.

While Russian long-range munitions stocks tended to become empty, the approximately 800 Shahed 136s delivered by Iran to Russia allowed Russian forces to maintain significant pressure on Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses, which were forced to be deployed, and employed, to protect the country's strategic infrastructure. They also caused a significant consumption of ammunition and the dispersion of DCA forces for the Ukrainian armies.

Since then, the Shahed 136, and its version produced locally in Russia, called Geran-2, have been systematically employed in addition to cruise missile and ballistic missile strikes salary. Ukrainian civil and military infrastructure, often in order to attract fire from the DCA supposed to protect them, and thus increase the effectiveness of the missiles themselves, which are much more destructive.

Towards a second generation of attack drones equipped with AI and more efficient

New models of long-range attack drones have since been used, whether in Ukraine, or by the Houthi rebels and Iranian auxiliary forces, in Yemen and Iraq. This is the case of the Shahed 238, an evolution of the 136 equipped with a small reactor, giving it a cruising speed estimated between 600 and 800 km/h, compared to only 185 km/h for the old model.

Shahed 238 attack drone
The Shahed 238 drone is equipped with a turbojet, and would have on-board AI, according to Tehran. Russia has developed its own version of the drone, called Geran-3, also equipped with AI.

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