It’s Sacred Defense week in Iran and that means two things. First, it’s the solemn anniversary of the 1980 Iraqi invasion and the bloody, savage eight-year war that followed.
Second, it’s that special time of year when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps rolls out its latest and purportedly greatest weapons—like a cross between Fashion Week and an old-school Soviet Victory Day parade.
War Is Boring recently reported that Iran was planning to unveil a drone “surprise” in September. this latest announcement appears to be it. Stepping onto what looked like a high school basketball court, Iran’s Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami unveiled a purportedly new air-defense drone—a much-hyped “first” for Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle fleet.
According to Iranian media, the aircraft is a variant of the Mohajer series of drones from the Iran Aviation Industries Organization. Iran has used Mohajers since the Iran-Iraq war, tweaking and updating them over the years.
In addition to debuting the robo-dogfighter, earlier this month Iranian officials announced a new reconnaissance drone—the Mohajer 4—plus an update of the Karrar jet-powered drone bomber.
Hatami told the assembled press that the air-defense Mohajer can shoot down enemy fighter jets, helicopters and even cruise missiles. But a closer look at the air-to-air drone reveals that it’s not quite the engineering marvel the good general would have you believe.
There’s no new air-to-air missile to accompany the air-defense Mohajer. Instead, IAIO appears to have simply bolted two man-portable air defense systems onto the robot’s underwing hardpoints. Normally, ground troops fire these heat-seeking missile from shoulder launchers.
It’s worth noting that the U.S. Air Force tried installing lightweight Stinger shoulder-fired missiles on Predator drones as far back as 2002. A Stinger-armed Predator even got into a dogfight with an Iraqi MiG-25.
The drone fired a Stinger but missed. The MiG’s own missile knocked the Predator right out of the sky.
Ever since then, the Pentagon has held off an equipping its drones with air-to-air weapons. In the U.S. military, powerful manned fighters with equally powerful missiles — and fast-thinking pilots at their controls — still handle the dangerous job of tangling with enemy planes.
There’s no reason to think Iran’s own missile-drone combo will fare any better in combat. For all the recent advancements in robotics, today’s unmanned aerial vehicles still lack the speed, sensors and sophisticated weaponry that intensive air combat demands.
That’s not stopping Iran from trying. Indeed, Tehran boasts a strong tradition of drone experimentation—not to mention drone theater. Back in the 1980s, Iranian engineers fitted racks onto early Mohajers to allow them to fire RPG-7 rocket propelled-grenades, which are also normally infantry weapons.
The combination was not a successful one. Still, Tehran wasted no time commissioning a rather goofy movie about the rocket-Mohajer.
So far, Iranian media seems to be mum on the type of missile the new dogfighting Mohajer carries. Iran stockpiles several Russian shoulder-fired missile models and also manufactures its own knockoff versions of China’s QW-1 missile.
Tehran’s effort to produce an air-to-air drone, while unorthodox, isn’t necessarily surprising. Iran is particularly sensitive about its air-defense capabilities now that it has a nuclear program that, to Western air forces, looks a lot like a big, fat target.
Every year, the Iranian military organizes chest-thumping exercises designed to show off its weaponry, presumably hoping to make would-be attackers think twice. The exercises blend real military capability, scripted pageantry and outright fakery.
It’s not clear yet which of these things the air-to-air Mohajer represents, although our money’s on pageantry rather than fakery, as America’s Predators proved long ago that it’s at least possible for a drone to dogfight an enemy plane, even if the robot has little chance of winning.
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