Iran has announced the acquisition of three new indigenously-built long-range armed drones. While little is known about these new drones, Iran has a strong track record of developing increasingly sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles.

According to Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami, the new unnamed drone model has a range of at least 1,500 km, capable of reaching Iran’s regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“Iranian drone and precision missiles are nothing new and have been in development for a long time,” Dr James Rogers, DIAS Assistant Professor in War Studies, told Rudaw English. “What is new is the sophistication and reliability of the technology and their guaranteed precision strike capacity.”

By most accounts, Iran’s various types of drones are formidable.

“We’ve seen Iran effectively use their kamikaze-type drones in the attack against the Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq, and they certainly outperformed the Iranian cruise missiles in that attack,” Sim Tack, a geopolitics analyst at Stratfor (a RANE company), told Rudaw English.

Tack was referring to the unprecedented September 2019 drone and cruise missile attacks against Saudi oilfields that are widely believed to have been orchestrated by Tehran.

“I would say that Iran has definitely adopted the use of drones throughout various types of operations and they contribute to the threat Tehran is able to project in several different theatres,” he added.

With that being said, Tack also pointed out that the general assumption is that American, Chinese, and Turkish drones are generally more sophisticated and have more advanced sensors and technology than their Iranian counterparts.

“At the same time, even without that same degree of sophistication drones can still be effective,” he said.

In February-March 2020, Turkish drones carrying a variety of different munitions devastated Syrian ground forces in Idlib. While Iran is yet to deploy its drones on a comparable scale in combat, “the country does have several types of drones capable of operating in this manner,” Tack added.

Rogers also likens Iran and Turkey as significant drone powers “with the ability to strike both military forces and conduct targeted killing.”

In September 2018, an Iranian drone guided a ballistic missile strike with pinpoint accuracy against the Koya headquarters of two Iranian Kurdish opposition groups based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, aptly demonstrating how Iranian drones enable Tehran to carry out targeted killings beyond its borders.

Iran’s allies and proxies, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Yemeni Houthis, have also operated Iranian drones in battle.

“From the shorter range Qasef and the Skywalker surveillance drone, through to the much longer-range and deadly ‘UAV X’, Iranian drones have been put to effective use by Iran’s proxies,” Rogers said.

“From my inspection of captured Houthi drones in 2019, it could be seen how commercially produced electronics and cameras mixed with Iranian design to create lethal weapons systems,” he said.

“We need only look at the strikes on Anad military base in the south-west of Yemen to see how these drones have provided non-state actors with a powerful threat from the air,” he added.

Tack noted that we have primarily seen drones with “more limited capabilities in the hands of these proxies.”

“Smaller surveillance drones or kamikaze drones are typically the ones observed there,” he said.

Although these are not the most advanced drones in Iran’s arsenal, they can nevertheless “have a significant effect on the battlefield as witnessed in Yemen where Iranian kamikaze drones and cruise missiles provided the Houthis with a pinpoint accuracy that they had not been able to achieve through their own domestically-designed weapons.”

US officials view such drone developments with concern. Until now, pro-Iran militias in Iraq have targeted US forces with unsophisticated Katyusha surface-to-surface rockets. If such groups are supplied with drones Iran has already built, the effects could prove devastating.

Iran could also use its drone technology to target US positions in Iraq, as it did on January 8 in retaliation for the assassination of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. Iranian drones could effectively guide Iranian ballistic missiles to US targets with precision, as Tehran did against the Kurds in Koya.

Iran’s drones are the product of recent progress in building up its domestic arms manufacturing capabilities over the past four decades. Although some of its systems are based on captured and reverse-engineered drones, according to Rogers “their drones and precision missile capabilities are increasingly indigenously manufactured and even exported to non-state surrogates who do their bidding for them.”

In 2011, Iran captured a US RQ-170 Sentinel drone that strayed into its airspace from neighbouring Afghanistan. In 2018, Israel shot down an Iranian knockoff of that American drone that had violated its airspace.

Tack noted that although many of Iran’s drones share design elements with foreign hardware, “the specific manufacturing capabilities and availability of advanced components means that they can’t simply copy a foreign drone.”

“In many ways these drones are very much indigenous designs, even though their overall configurations may appear similar to others,” he said.

The commander of the Iranian air force, Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh, recently claimed “Iran is the first top power in terms of combat drones in the region, and is among the top five in the world.”

It was even suggested in the Iranian press last August that Tehran could become an exporter of drones to Russia.

While Russia has been behind other powers in the development of unmanned aircraft, neither Rogers or Tack believes this indicates Tehran has surpassed Moscow in this sector.

“Russia should not be overlooked as a drone power, and although Iran has sophisticated technologies, I would not say one is ahead of the other,” Rogers said, adding that Russia is making rapid advancements in the design and manufacture of both large medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones and smaller tactical systems.

Tack pointed out that Russia also has greater experience in aerospace design and advanced sensor development. Consequently, he believes that “even though Russia has been lagging behind countries like the United States and China in drone development, Iran is even further behind.”

“The proven Russian technologies from their broad military-industrial complex allow them to design drones with greater efficiency and greater capabilities,” he said.

“Russia has also really prioritized the development of drones in past years and has been catching up rapidly.”

Source » rudaw