Iranian drones are emerging as the major new threat of 2021. Israel Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed that Iran has attempted to transfer weapons using drones from Syria. He also revealed Iranian bases where UAVs are based in Chabahar and Qeshm in Iran.

This comes in the wake of revelations in September about Iran training drone operators. At the time he said that “Iran is training militias from Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria to employ advanced UAVs, in a base called Kashan.”

The Iranian drone threat has been around for many years. In 2019 the Islamic Republic used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia’s massive Abqaiq energy facility. Iran transferred drone technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, to Hamas, the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and also to Hezbollah.

Iranian drones have entered Israeli airspace at least twice: in February 2018 when one flew from T-4 base in Syria to an area near Beit She’an and in May 2021 when a drone was launched from Iraq and flew over Syria also to an area near Beit She’an. Israel shot these drones down.

Iran used drones to attack a ship in the Gulf of Oman in July, killing two crew members. It has used them in Syria against ISIS, and in Iraq to threaten US forces. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have attacked US forces at facilities in Erbil several times this year.

Iran also used drones to strike at US forces in the Tanf garrison in Syria. Recent reports in US media claimed that the attack was an Iranian attempt to respond to Israeli airstrikes by attacking the US. For Iran, America and Israel are major adversaries.

ALL OF THIS is pointing in the same direction: Iran wants to use drones to target Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries. It is also increasingly relying on drones as its major weapon. This is a shift from focusing on ballistic missiles and precision-guided munitions. It is a shift in technology and can also be a shift in precision and lethality.

Drones are different than missiles. They don’t fly on an arc and so that means they can be difficult to detect and kill. Drones are also different than cruise missiles because they can hover, monitor and return to base, or loiter over a target.

In Gantz’s speech on Tuesday, he singled out Shahed type UAVs, which he said were being used to carry out “maritime attacks,” apparently from Qeshm Island in southern Iran. “Iran is also operating outside the region, transferring oil and weapons to Venezuela, operating its Quds Forces in South America and trying to infiltrate its influence into Afghanistan.

“Iranian terrorism is exported under the directive of [supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and the regime’s top leaders,” he said. “One of their key tools is UAVs – a precise weapon that can reach strategic targets within thousands of kilometers. As such, this capability is already endangering Sunni countries, international forces in the Middle East and countries in Europe and Africa.”
He also mentioned T-4 base in Syria, a base in the desert near Palmyra. This is the same base Iran sent a drone from in February 2018 to target Israel.
It is also the base that it allegedly tried to transfer 3rd Khordad air defenses to in April 2018. The same system was used by Tehran to shoot down a US Global Hawk drone off the coast of Iran in June 2019. The air defense system could be a threat to the US and Israel. In October 2021 more reports emerged that the Islamic Republic wanted to move air defenses to Syria.

Gantz has said that Tehran used a Shahed 141 drone in the February 2018 incident. “Iran not only uses UAVs to attack, but also to deliver weapons to its proxies.”

The fact that Iranian drones might be able to deliver weapons appears to be a new revelation. While it was known Iran has transferred technology regarding drones, trained operators and moved parts such as engines or gyroscopes via sea and land to proxies, the transfer of a weapon using a drone is a new threat.

THE IRANIAN drone threat is complex. Iran has a number of classes of drones that it has developed over the years. The Shahed series includes the 149, nicknamed “Gaza,” and the 129, which are modeled on the US Predator and Reaper drones. Newsweek has also mentioned a Shahed 136 that Iran may have moved to Yemen in January. There is also the Shahed 171 Simorgh, which is a copy of the US Sentinel flying wing spy drone.

There are also Iranian Mohajer drones whose origins go back to the 1980s. Some of these have a twin tail and are used for surveillance. There is also the Ababil family of drones, which includes the kamikaze drones that have become popular in Yemen and now among Hamas.

Iranian drones have been exported or copied by Iranian proxies and renamed. Hamas uses the Shehab drone, launched from a kind of catapult. The Houthis used the Qasef and Samad kamikaze drones to carry out precision attacks. Iraqi militias use the Sahab.

What matters in Iran’s drone operations is that it relies on this weapon as a kind of instant air force. Iran can’t afford new warplanes and it is under sanctions. Drones give Iran plausible deniability to carry out attacks because it is not always easy to prove that it carried out the operations, even if you find pieces of the drone. Drones can also be used to harass ships and make it difficult for adversaries to put air defenses everywhere against them. The increased warnings in Israel about the Iran drone threat is part of wider regional tensions.

However, the fact that Iran appears to be spreading this weapon system everywhere, from Syria to Yemen, represents a new method of how Iran fights wars. Tehran also apparently tries to innovate the way drones can be used as threats. That means US defense officials, such as those within Central Command, were right to warn about the Iran drone threat. Now they and other partners in the region, such as Israel, will have to increasingly confront this threat.

Iran used to brag often about its drones. Now that Israel is highlighting this issue and US officials are mentioning it, Tehran has grown more circumspect. Nevertheless, it is clear that Iran is now training more operators and trying to standardize production more, rather than just brag about exotic new drones that it created by copying ones built in other countries. Iran now wants to innovate for itself.

Source » jpost