Last week Iran carried out extensive drone warfare exercises, with several hundred unmanned aircraft flying reconnaissance missions against fixed and mobile targets over land and sea, and mock attacks with machine guns, bombs and guided missiles as well as kamikaze strikes. One of the firsts for Iran was the launch of an air-to-air missile by a drone. This doesn’t mean that Iran will be unleashing a mass of Top Gun dogfighting drones on U.S. forces anytime soon, but it does hint at a significant new capability.
Obvious any such report from official Iranian media should be taken with a few grains of salt, as overhyping their military capability is pretty much a requirement for staying in business. But while they may not be objective, such reports can provide useful information.
The launching drone was a Karrar, an Iranian-built clone of the Beechcraft MQM-107 Streaker, long used as an aerial target by the United States. Large numbers were exported to Iran during the Shah’s regime in the 70s, and the Iranians reverse-engineered these, with a few modifications, to create the Karrar in 2010. The jet-powered Karrar has a speed of over 500 mph, and has been modified from the target role to be a bomber, carrying a pair of 250-pound anti-ship missiles, a 500-pound GPS-guided bomb, or a small cruise missile.
In the new exercises the Karrar was fitted with a single Azarakhsh (“Thunderbolt”) missile, another system owing a debt to on an American original: the missile looks identical to some versions of the veteran U.S. AIM-9 Sidewinder, also exported to Iran back in the day. Unveiled in 2018, the Azarakhsh appears to have weight and dimensions identical to the Sidewinder. This was originally described as an anti-tank missile, but could clearly be easily modified for its previous role.
In the recent exercises, several truck-mounted launchers fired a wave of Karrars. The drones take off with rocket assistance, and land with a parachute. Little is known about their sensors, but the latest version is believed to have cameras and infra-red sensors.
So why fit an old-fashioned, remote-controlled aircraft, basically a flying target with a bomb slung underneath, with an air-to-air missile? There are a couple of tactical applications that make sense.
The Karrar is sometimes described as an interceptor, and can be used kamikaze-style to ram incoming aircraft. Mounting a surface-to-air missile would give it two shots rather than one, and would also allow it to be used repeatedly rather than as a one-off. This might be a useful capability against simple, non-evading targets such as cruise missiles. The speed of launch could put interceptors in the air more rapidly than manned aircraft. Exactly how successful the Karrar/ Azarakhsh would be in this role is open to question, but their presence could make things more complicated for any proposed attack.
Another possible target would be enemy drones, because the pilots lack ‘situational awareness’ — with no cockpit to see out of, they can often be approached and shot down without seeing their attacker. This would give Iran a long-range and relatively deniable way of tackling Reapers like the one that killed Qassem Soleimani.
The missiles could also give defensive capability. This is similar to what the U.S. Air Force did in the early 2000s, fitting Stinger air-to-air missiles to its MQ-1 Predator drones so that they would not be easy prey for Iraqi jets while carrying out reconnaissance missions. The idea was that they might at least scare off the Iraqis if not shoot them down. On the only occasion one exchanged missiles with a MiG-25 2002, the Predator was blown out of the sky. The idea has since been revived though, and an MQ-9 Reaper successfully took out a target with an air-to-air missile (assumed to be a Sidewinder) in a 2018 test.
Waves of Karrars may attack targets like air bases or aircraft carriers. Most are likely to be carrying bombs or surface-to-air-missiles, and will be intercepted by fighters long before they reach their goal and a one-sided fight will ensue. Equipping some drones with air-to-air missiles changes the encounter from a turkey shoot to something more like Russian Roulette for the fighters, with the risk that getting too close could mean getting shot down. Again, that changes the calculus of the action. A dozen drones for one F-18 Hornet, for example, would be an excellent exchange rate for the Iranians.
The Iran announcement is nothing technically impressive, but shows a creative approach to bolting together well-established technologies. Remote-controlled dogfighting drones derived from old aerial targets are a distinct possibility – the U.S. Navy developed them 50 years ago, but the idea may have been a bit too scary for advocates of manned aircraft. And while true ‘Loyal Wingman’ robot fighters may be a few years away, the Iranian exercise shows we should prepare now for drones that shoot back.
Source » forbes