Crashed American drones have been a boon to Iran’s rusty military, giving it propaganda tokens to parade and, if you buy the government’s claims, useful technical data from reverse-engineering.
But it also appears that U.S. robotic hardware is doing another job for the Iranians—helping keep their fighters pilots ready for war.
Pictures from back in September indicate that Iran has managed to maintain at least a few of its American-made Chukar II target drones—leftovers from the days of the Shah and warmer relations with the U.S. more than 30 years ago—up and running for training exercises. The drones simulate enemy planes and give the Iranian aviators something to chase.
At this point, Tehran’s Chukar IIs are nearly 40 years old.
The photos and report, published on a Baluchistan activist Website and on social media, show a clearly-marked MQM-74 washing up on a beach with its parachute deployed. According to the report, local youths found the aircraft near Konarak in Sistan and Baluchistan province on the coast of the Gulf Oman.
The turbojet-powered drones were designed to give fighter pilots and naval gunners practice intercepting aircraft. That said, Chukar operators have also used the drone for missions other than target practice before. Israel and the United States sent versions of the remote-controlled aircraft into enemy airspace in order to confuse enemy air defense systems during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the 1991 Gulf War, respectively.
Still, the target plane’s arrival on the shores of Konarak likely has to do with training. Clues as to its ownership and usage lie in the location and photos of its recovery. The photos show personnel from the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force dressed in flight suits carrying the Chukar out of the ocean and onto the back of a pickup truck.
In all likelihood, the Chukar parachuted into the water as part of a training mission for yet another piece of American hardware from yesteryear—the F-4 Phantom fighter jet.
The coast of Konarak, where the drone went down, lies just about 10 miles from IRIAF’s 10th Tactical Fighter Base, home to a squadron of Vietnam War-vintage F-4s. The troops in the photo, however, are wearing patches from the 91st Tactical Fighter Squadron, the “Sharks,” based out of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf coast.
The area has seen IRIAF training exercises before, sometimes with deadly results. In 2007, Iran’s air force lost two pilots when a Phantom crashed during training exercises over the Oman Sea near Konarak.
The presence of a Bandar Abbas tactical fighter squadron out by the Pakistani border is likely due to exercises, aviation analyst and Iran aircraft expert Tom Cooper explains. “IRIAF is running at least two annual exercises during which large parts of different units are moving from one part of the country—i.e., from several different parts of the country—to the other.”
For those who might think the washed up Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is an errant American aircraft, it’s worth noting that the U.S. started receiving updated versions of the Chukar target drone as late as 1993. The aircraft that washed up, still complete with its Northrop logo, lacks the American flag marking that other U.S. versions clearly display.
The Chukars aren’t the only Northrop target drones that Iran has kept going for training purposes. “U.S.-supplied drones seem to still be pretty popular for over-water training,” Iranian military chronicler and Arkenstone blog editor Galen Wright notes.
In particular, Wright points to MQM-36 Radioplane target drones, which Iran used for gunnery target practice during the Velayat 90 exercises in 2012.
Despite Iran’s skill at breathing continual life into its pre-sanctions weaponry, the cluster of Cold War vintage aircraft illustrates the challenge for Iran’s air force.
It’s using late 1970s target drones to train pilots on its 1960s jets in order to prepare them for a fight against America’s 21st-century fighters.