The U.S. government has taken aim at a prolific Russian suicide drone for the first time.
Last week, the U.S. State, Commerce, and Treasury departments brought an array of sanctions against Russian entities and individuals, including Zala Aero, the manufacturer of the Lancet kamikaze drone that is being deployed by the Russian military against Ukraine. The sanctions target Zala and several firms in Russia and abroad thought to be supplying Moscow with uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) technology.
The sanctions mark the first direct action the U.S. government has taken to target the Lancet, which according to British military intelligence has helped Russia create a “step change” in its offensive capability through precise, long range, one-way attacks.
“Russia deploys Lancets to attack priority targets, and they have become increasingly prominent in the key counter-battery fight, striking enemy artillery,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in a recent report. “Traditionally, Russia has used small UAVs mainly for reconnaissance. With its attack capability, Lancet has been a step change in how Russia uses this category of weapons.”
So-called loitering munitions such as the Lancet are designed to be piloted over enemy territory, “loitering” in the air until a target is identified. They then swoop down and detonate. Ukrainian soldiers have described the UAVs as one of the main threats they face on front lines. The aircraft cost only around $35,000 to make, allowing Russia to deploy them in droves.
The State Department’s nearly 100 sanctions include “a network procuring items in support of the production of the KUB-BLA and Lancet suicide drones being used by the Russian military in Ukraine.” KUB-BLA kamikaze drones are also produced by Zala.
The restrictions target Zala—a subsidiary of Kalashnikov Group, which is thought to produce about 95 percent of Russia’s small arms and is best known for the AK-47 assault rifle—and A Level Aerospace, a manufacturer and seller under the Zala brand. They designate Zala owner Aleksandr Zakharov, along with his wife, three children, and the companies they own.
Russian firms known to be supplying Zala, as well as United Arab Emirates-based companies procuring technology for the Russian military, were also blacklisted.
The Commerce Department, meanwhile, added 13 companies—12 of them Russian—to its entity list, barring exports of American-made tech. The sanctions are “some of the Department’s most severe export restrictions” and are aimed specifically at limiting the procurement, development, and proliferation of Russian drones. Targeted firms include Zala and several others on the State Department’s list.
“It is imperative that we remain clear-eyed about our mission to degrade and diminish [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ability to wage war against the Ukrainian people,” said Alan Estevez, under secretary of commerce for industry and security. “Today’s additions to the entity list highlight that no U.S. technology can be used to further our adversaries’ objectives.”
The Treasury Department’s sanctions, of which there are 130, focus primarily on throwing a wrench into Russia’s international supply chain in order to disrupt sanctions evasion.
In particular, firms in the UAE, China, and Turkey—thought to be part of a Russian weapons procurement network supplying “critical components that Russia relies on for its weapons systems”—were singled out.
“Russia is dependent on willing third-country individuals and entities to resupply its military and perpetuate its heinous war against Ukraine, and we will not hesitate in holding them accountable,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. “Today’s actions demonstrate our further resolve in continuing to disrupt every link of Russian military supply chain and target outside actors who would seek to support Russia’s war effort.”
The U.S. has cracked down on a few of these third-country procurement networks in recent months. For example, last week a Brooklyn resident and two Russian nationals were charged with conspiracy and other crimes for an export control scheme that benefitted Russian drone manufacturers.
In August, Artur Petrov, a Russian-German national, was charged with export violations, smuggling, wire fraud, and money laundering by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York for orchestrating a sanctions evasion scheme. Petrov used shell companies to acquire U.S.-made microelectronics, which have been found in Russian drones and guided missiles recovered on the battlefield in Ukraine.
At this point in the conflict, it is well known that Russia also deploys Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones and quadcopters produced by China’s DJI, relying on suppliers in those countries to stock its barracks. While these models were not mentioned in the latest round of sanctions, the U.S. appears to be treating such networks more seriously by restricting the third-country portion of Russia’s supply chain.
The Lancet Threat
Russia has been using a common variant of the Lancet, the Lancet-3, or Product-51, for months. The kamikaze drones have been effective, but a range of about 25 miles limits their severity somewhat. However, recent videos appear to show Lancet-3s striking Ukrainian fighter jets from 45 miles away.
In reality, these were next-generation variants called the Izdeliye-53 or Product-53, which are designed to fly in swarms and communicate with one another in the air. The models are deployed from small, ground-based tubes similar to mortars, unlike Product-51, which is launched by a pneumatic rail.
“The main thing about the drones is their ease of use,” Zakharov, also chief designer for Zala, told Russian television last month. “The ease of use and almost complete autonomy from any means of counteraction. That is, it will be almost impossible to fight against them.”
According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Russian sources claim the country began using the Product-53 on October 21. As Zakharov alluded to, the new design reportedly has an automatic guidance system that distinguishes between different kinds of targets and boosts strike success rates.
Per the ISW, Product-53s are not being widely used. But Russian forces have been testing them for “mass synchronized swarm strikes.” The think tank also reported that Russia allegedly deployed a Product-24 or “Italmas” drone—another improved variant of the original Lancet— in a strike on Kyiv Oblast.
With a payload of only 3 to 5 kilograms (about 6 to 11 pounds), the new Lancet models may lack the ability to significantly damage Ukrainian targets, as ISW hypothesized. Still, the prospect of them flying in swarms could be troublesome.
Will Sanctions Be Effective?
The U.S. sanctions on Lancet drones were well received by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who described them as “powerful” and reiterated his confidence in Ukraine’s success.
“This is what is needed,” Zelenskyy said in a nightly video briefing on November 2. “Every sanctions decision must work in full—so that there is no chance for Russia to circumvent the sanctions. The power of sanctions is the power of the world.”
But whether the sanctions are necessary and whether they are effective are two different conversations.
In a February fact sheet, the Treasury Department touted the efficacy of its sanctions on the Russian economy and military procurement. But a December Congressional Research Service report said that while sanctions have created some friction, they haven’t quite packed the punch experts expected.
“The sanctions have created challenges for Russia but to date have not delivered the economic ‘knock out’ that many predicted,” the report reads.
Moscow itself appears to be unfazed by the new round of restrictions. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, told Russian state television the country has “learned how to overcome them.”
“This is a continuation of the policy of inflicting as they call it—a strategic defeat on us,” Zakharova said. “They will have to wait in vain forever before that happens.”
However, the hope is that the sanctions can move the needle and at least bother Russian frontline forces, who are “relying heavily” on Lancet drones as they struggle to be effective, according to the ISW. Shahed loitering munitions and DJI drones will likely still pose a problem. But any hindrance to Russia’s Lancet production could go a long way.
The sanctions come as Ukraine looks to ramp up its own domestic drone production to “dozens of thousands” of UAVs per month.
The country has frequently relied on foreign suicide drones, such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 or U.S.-made Switchblade loitering munitions. But it’s propped up homegrown manufacturers in recent months with initiatives such as the Army of Drones, and it’s calling on Western countries to do the same as the world contends with wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
The U.S. has also sanctioned individuals and entities in Iran, China, Russia, and Turkey that are thought to have ties to Iran’s military drone procurement network. In addition to supplying Russia with Shahed drones, Iran is reportedly providing Hamas militants with technology and training.
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