The Iranian attack on a ship off the coast of Oman shone a spotlight on Iran’s use of suicide drones and the Islamic Republic’s UAV program has been singled out by Israel and the US in statements this week.
This is more important than it may appear, because Iran has quietly built up a drone army over the last few years and has been sending drones and drone technology to Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iranian drone parts have also been flooding the region for years and are now used in attacks by Hamas against Israel, the Houthis against Saudi Arabia, Kataib Hezbollah against US forces in Iraq, in Syria against ISIS, in Iraq against Kurds, and in Syria against Israel.
Iran is a regional drone power but this often goes under reported because Iran uses them sparingly and is mostly in the business of bragging about its drone abilities and it “outsources” attacks to proxies and partners.
The drone is a good weapon for plausible deniability because it is hard to know where it came from or who operated it. You may not have a radar that tells you where it took off and you won’t necessarily have visuals. So it is a perfect weapon for Iran’s model of policy mafia-like behavior in the region.
Back in 2020, the Conflict Armament Research group warned of how Iran’s drone parts had been found in some eight countries. A map CAR produced at the time showed components spread across the region where these drones have been shot down, or crashed. At The Jerusalem Post, we noted at the time that “in 2012 an Iranian Ababil-3 was downed in Sudan’s South Kordofan.
A similar gyroscope was found in an Ababil-3 in Iraq provided to an Iranian-backed group and other components were found in Bahrain and also a Shahed-141 UAV downed in Israel in February 2018. That drone had flown from Syria.
In Yemen and Saudi Arabia, numerous drones and components have been documented. This means that Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Israel, Iraq, Syria and even Afghanistan have been targeted by these Iranian-linked drones or groups using components linked to them. In Afghanistan, for instance, a V9 gyroscope was found on a Shahed-123 drone that was downed in Afghanistan in a 2016 crash.”
The US went a step further and created the Iran Materials Display in Washington to showcase Iranian missiles and drones. The display includes, the US says, the “remains of a Shahed-123 unmanned aerial vehicle are seen at the Iranian Materiel Display at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., Nov. 26, 2018.
The Department of Defense established the Iranian Materiel Display in December 2017 to present evidence that Iran is arming dangerous groups with advanced weapons and spreading instability and conflict in the region. The IMD contains materiel associated with Iranian proliferation into Yemen, Afghanistan and Bahrain.”
This means we have ample evidence of Iran’s drones. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also singled out Iran’s drone threat in a statement this week. “Upon review of the available information, we are confident that Iran conducted this attack, which killed two innocent people, using one-way explosive UAVs, a lethal capability it is increasingly employing throughout the region.”
This is important because it shows the US is aware of the threat in the region. This week Defense Minister Benny Gantz also elaborated on the drone threat. “Amir Ali Hajizadeh, Commander of the IRGC’s Air Force, is behind dozens of terror attacks in the region employing UAVs and missiles. For the first time ever, I will also expose the man who is directly responsible for the launch of suicide UAVs – his name is Saeed Ara Jani and he is the Head of the IRGC’s UAV Command. The UAV command conducted the attack on the Mercer Street tanker. Saeed Ara Jani plans and provides the training and equipment to conduct terror attacks in the region.”
Now we know a lot more than before. We know the name of the men behind the program, and not just Hajizadeh, who was known, but Jani. We also know how much the US, the UK and Israel take this seriously.
There are some missing details and questions: Online reports have claimed the drones used in the attack on the ship were known as Shahed 136. This, allegedly, is a drone that looks like a flying V or a kind of triangular wing-shape. It apparently has a warhead in its body and it is designed to fly into something from a high angle, apparently, like a Stuka dive-bomber. There is footage online of Iran using drones like this at various military drills. However, there is a slight problem with the name. Iran doesn’t say that a drone by this name exists, and Iran likes to brag about all its latest drones. It has named the Shahed 161 as the type seen in some displays and drills.
There is shortage of news reports about Iran’s drones. It began building these flying-wing style drones after downing a US Sentinel stealth spy drone in 2011 and claims that it reverse-engineered it. It then built something called the Simorgh and then it built the Shahed 171, the Shahed 161, and Shahed 191. Tasnim news also names the Shahed 141 and 181 as others in a series of Iranian drones. We know Hajizadeh took personal interest in this project, because Iran media shows him touring the captured US drone and other copies Iran made.
Iran’s media says the 161 is 40% the size of the US Sentinel and weighs 50kg. It can fly for 2 hours at a speed of 275 km/h. Iran claims these drone can carry bombs. “In combat missions, these drones can carry up to 100 kg of cargo. This model is equipped with an internal atrium that allows it to carry 2 bombs, which prevents the increase of radar reflection by carrying a weapon outside the body.” This does not sound like a kamikaze drone, of the type that the Qasef in Yemen is, or the Ababil T made in Iran or the Shehab that Hamas now use. Iran says the Shahed 171 can fly some 4,400km. Iran’s Tasnim points out that “in March 2016, during a specialized drone exercise called Al-Bayt al-Muqaddas-1 in the Strait of Hormuz, the IRGC Air Force again deployed 50 UAVs of various types, including 40 and 60 percent scale samples [of the Sentinel], simultaneously in a large area.” This drill and subsequent drills were named after Jerusalem and imply Iran was testing them perhaps to be used against Israel.
What is the mysterious Shahed 136, that may or may not exist? It was first reported by Newsweek in January as having been seen in Yemen from a grainy satellite image that shows a triangular-shaped object. But subsequent reports were very precise in claiming it had a 2,200 km range. That’s a convenient range because it means it can strike Eilat from Houthi-controlled Yemen. Apparently it can also strike at ships.
It remains to be seen if evidence of the type of drone used in the attack will be revealed. In May, Israel also accused Iran of flying a drone into Israeli airspace via Syria, similar to a February 2018 incident in which an Iranian drone from the T-4 base in Syria entered Israeli airspace. That drone is sometimes called the Shahed 141, or Saegheh in news reports.
Iran may hide behind a plethora of names for its various drones, which are then renamed when Iranian allies build them. In Iraq, for instance, the pro-Iran militias called. Hashd al-Shaabi have been parading their drones and using them to strike at the US. Middle East Eye says “on 26 June, the Popular Mobilisation Authority (PMA) – a governmental umbrella group for paramilitaries – held a military parade at Camp Ashraf in Diyala Province, 70km northeast of Baghdad. The display included most of the weapons and forces at the PMA’s disposal, including a number of drones that the PMA later tried to deny were part of the parade. However, MEE obtained exclusive images of the crafts in the parade. All of them are Iranian-made and some were assembled inside Iraq, according to specialist Iraqi officers and PMA commanders.”
This report names several types of Iranian drones. “Included in the parade were Mohajer 6, Sahab 1, Sahab, Baaz and Safir drones, easily identifiable as the PMA even wrote their names on the vehicles carrying them around Camp Ashraf.”
The Hashd has had drones since around 2015, according to reports. The Houthis, who acquired Iranian drones around the same time use the Hudhed-1, Raqib, Rased, and Saamad 1 and the Qasef-1, Qasef 2k, Sammad 2 and Sammad 3. Given this menagerie of systems, determining which struck the ship may take time. What is important is that countries are waking up to the Iran drone threat.
Source » jpost