Chinese companies have begun producing multiple “clone” versions of Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones amid growing suspicions that Russia is looking to Beijing to sell the munitions for use against Ukraine.
At least three drones bearing a close resemblance to the Shahed-136 loitering munition being deployed by the Kremlin to target Ukrainian towns and cities are currently being offered for sale via a Chinese internet forum designed to showcase defence products, including military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
One of the new products, the TL-180, is being marketed with a lengthy explanation of the tactical benefits of the Shahed-136 and a promise to improve on the Iranian product with a stronger airframe and an ability to be used both as a so-called “suicide” drone fitted with a warhead and a surveillance tool capable of multiple flights.
Several reports in recent weeks have suggested that the Chinese maker of another Shahed derivative, the ZT-180, has struck a deal with the Kremlin to test and supply the kamikaze drone. German media outlet Der Spiegel reported that the Chinese manufacturer, Xi’an Binguo Intelligent Aviation Technology Ltd, has agreed to supply 100 of the drones to Moscow by next month.
The company later insisted that it has “no commercial contact with Russia” amid high sensitivity between Beijing and Western capitals over concerns that China is mulling supplying weaponry to bolster Vladimir Putin’s struggling war machine.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week insisted Washington has evidence that China is “strongly considering” providing lethal assistance to Moscow. Beijing has accused the West of double standards and insisted the claims “have no factual basis”, adding that China “has not provided weapons to either side of the conflict”.
Xi’an Binguo, which was founded in 2017 and currently advertises a range of fixed-wing and quadcopter UAVs, did not respond to a request from i to comment.
A Western security source told i that the Kremlin is increasingly desperate to secure alternative supplies of the Shahed-136 drones amid reports that the initial batch of the weapons secured from Tehran is close to being exhausted. With its vast manufacturing capacity and track record of producing copycat military technology, China is seen as an obvious port of call for Russian officials seeking new sources of munitions.
The source said: “There are shortages on both sides [in the Ukraine war]. For the Russians it includes PGMs [precision guided munitions], for which the Shaheds have proven a plentiful and cheap alternative. If the Iranians cannot maintain supplies then China is the next best option. Moscow will have made its urgent desire for something that does the same job as the Shahed-136 known to the Chinese.”
The delta-winged TL-180, first identified by Twitter account Arms Show Tracker, is described as being “similar to the Shahed-136″ with additional capabilities to the Iranian drone, including a capacity to “engage moving targets on land”. The Chinese product is also highlighted as being fashioned from “aviation carbon fibre” rather than the honeycomb plastic construction used by the Shahed’s Iranian manufacturers, Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA).
China already stands accused of supporting Moscow in its assault on Ukraine by allowing a steady flow of electronics components and advanced engineering such as aircraft spares to Russian companies, in some cases passing off military parts as destined for use in civil aviation.
But there is also evidence of a triangular relationship between China, Russia and Iran, with Chinese companies this month standing accused of supplying HESA with thousands of components, including parts potentially used in the manufacture of Shahed drones being supplied to Moscow.
Washington last week imposed sanctions on five Chinese manufacturers which it said had supplied parts cumulatively worth millions of dollars to HESA, including a company called Koto Machinery which is alleged to have sent light aircraft engines of the type used in Shahed drones.
Experts argue that the Iranian drones, which cost as little as $20,000 (£16,000) are being used as part of an incremental strategy by Moscow to degrade Ukrainian air defence systems, which rely on expensive surface to air missiles (SAMs) to intercept incoming barrages.
Russia last week launched its latest mass missile attack on Ukraine, using “mix and match” munitions ranging from hypersonic Kinzhal missiles to slow-moving Shahed-136s as part of a renewed attack on energy infrastructure and civilian buildings.
Dara Massicot, a senior researcher at the RAND think-tank, said Russia appeared to be “experimenting” with how and when to strike Ukraine with its own diminishing inventory of missiles. She said: “The strikes are lethal, yet they backfire too, as Ukrainians are more resolved against Russia with each wave. That being said, I do worry that this wears down Ukrainian SAM inventory.”