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2 Dec 2023

Ukrainian air-defense troops hunt Shahed drones.

Ukrainian air-defense troops hunt Shahed drones.

Ukrainian defense ministry photo

Russia is installing 4G modems and Ukrainian SIM cards in explosives-laden Shahed drones, potentially allowing them to piggyback on civilian cellular networks—and possibly making them smarter and more dangerous.

But if the cellular kluge works, there’s no reason Ukraine couldn’t copy it. And a drone that plugs into civilian 4G is more dangerous to Russia than it is to Ukraine.

Ukrainian air force technicians discovered something new and strange when they inspected the wreckage of a Russian Shahed drone Ukrainian forces recently shot down.

The Shahed, painted black to help it blend into the night sky, was one of hundreds of the 440-pound, exploding drones the Russians have flung at Ukrainian cities in the 22 months since Russia widened its war on Ukraine.

What was weird about this particular Shahed was its 4G modem, paired with a Kyivstar SIM card. A propeller-driven Shahed shouldn’t need a modem: the satellite-guided drone is highly autonomous and doesn’t have to relay data—a video feed, for example—back to an operator during its long flight.

But if a Shahed could relay video, it might afford an operator an opportunity to adjust the drone’s course—and nudge it toward the most vulnerable targets. Piggybacking on the enemy’s own 4G cell network might be the cheapest and easiest method of connecting a drone to an operator, and the most difficult to hack or jam.

The Shahed's modem and SIM card.

The Shahed's modem and SIM card.

Via social media

It also is possible the modem-SIM-combo is an autonomous navigational aid. By pinging cell towers, a drone could triangulate its location and reduce its reliance on satellites. This upgrade would address an obvious problem: the Ukrainians jamming Russian satellite links.

Whatever the purpose of the Shahed add-on, it’s possible the Ukrainian air force already knew about it. “It is not always necessary to disclose whether we know something or not,” said Yuriy Ignat, an air force spokesperson.

And the development might end up hurting the Russian war effort, by nudging the Ukrainians toward building their own 4G-aided explosive drones. Ukraine is small compared to Russia and Russian deep-strike munitions already can range across the whole of Ukraine.

All this is to say, the Kremlin isn’t desperately in need of a cellular drone.

By contrast, Ukraine’s own deep-strike weapons tend to travel no farther than Moscow, 350 miles from the Ukrainian border. A 400-pound, propeller-drive drone—which Ukraine clearly has the ability to produce—can fly for 24 hours straight with an explosive payload equivalent to an artillery shell, allowing it to range potentially thousands of miles.

At extreme range, guidance and data-sharing might become a challenge. But not if the drone is riding on a cellular network. Smuggle in enough Russian SIM cards, and Ukraine could produce its own exploding cellular drones, and vastly extend its strikes across Russia.