by ADAM RAWNSLEY
America isn’t the only country that deploys drones to spy on its enemies. In the skies over Syria’s bloody civil war, above Iraq’s jihadist insurgency and across a number of regional conflicts, Iran’s drones are becoming an increasingly common sight.
Ever since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran has been an early adopter of unmanned technology. But as drones have become more important in warfare, Iran’s development of the pilotless aircraft has intensified.
Iranian officials’ penchant for showing off fake new weapons can make it hard to separate the fact from fiction about what Tehran’s drones can do. So much of what we know—or what we think we know—about Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles comes from propaganda outlets, which are only too keen to play down the impact of sanctions and play up Iran’s martial and engineering skill, often with ludicrous assertions.
The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between two extremes. Sanctions haven’t stopped the the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from putting more unmanned planes in the air. But the Guards still face challenges in arming them with air-to-ground missiles and building a communications infrastructure with greater bandwidth and range in order to control the robots over more distant battlefields.
The story of Iran’s drone development isn’t the underdog tale of scrappy Iranian engineers scrambling to catch up with the United States, as the Guards so often claim. Instead, it’s the story of Iran’s military prudently developing UAVs that are just good enough—and progressively improving successful designs.
A number of export control laws, multilateral agreements and international sanctions complicate Iran’s ability to purchase drone parts on the open market. Moreover, the United States, the United Nations and other countries and world bodies have levied specific sanctions against Iranian entities — and those of Tehran’s allies — for their role in Iran’s UAV production.
Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company, Qods Aviation and Hezbollah’s Stars Holding Group are all subject to sanctions.
Lightweight engines are a crucial ingredient for any UAV. Despite the sanctions, Iran has demonstrated that it can get the materials it needs to build small motors to power its drones.
“There is credible evidence to suggest that Iran is capable of producing the engines used by the majority of their UAVs,” says Galen Wright, an analyst who analyzes Iranian military capabilities at The Arkenstone.
Wright notes that much of Iran’s drone fleet tends towards smaller, shorter-ranged tactical models. “None of these are particularly rare, complicated, or expensive, which makes them attractive to Iran. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if you can buy one off the shelf.”
The generally lower-tech components that power Iran’s fleet of smaller, tactical drones often don’t attract the same kind of scrutiny as other, more ominous dual-use materials. Thus, drone parts can slip through the web of national and international controls, sometimes with the help of a little extra cash.
Tom Cooper, an aviation analyst who has written extensively about Iran’s air forces, says his sources in Iran generally aren’t fazed by the impact of sanctions targeting the UAV industry. “Everything necessary we do not manufacture at home is easily available by means of arms brokers and middlemen, just three times more expensive than normal,” Cooper says one of his sources told him.
European engines, particularly from Germany’s Limbach Flugmotoren, frequently appear on Iran’s drone shopping list. U.S. State Department cables from the late 2000s—published by WikiLeaks—reveal that American diplomats warned their foreign counterparts about Iranian front companies trying to obtain Limbach 550E engines, among other models, and ship them to Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company with faking shipping labels.
More recently, prosecutors in Germany have charged two men—Iman L. and Davood A.—with seeking to buy Limbach engines for Iran’s Ababil-3 drones. The Missile Technology Control regime, which restricts member country sales of certain missile and UAV technologies, doesn’t cover the engines. But Iman and Davood allegedly ran afoul of Germany’s national restrictions on trade with Iran, which requires government approval.
In public, though, Iran prefers to assert an indigenous ability to develop its drones. In 2009, Iranian media began running claims that MADO, a domestic company, was now capable of making indigenous UAV engines comparable to those Iran has imported from Europe, including a 25-horsepower model similar to one Limbach maks.
MADO’s Website, now defunct, later advertised engines with descriptions seemingly copied and pasted from Limbach’s product line, from the specifications down to the model numbers. Iran-watchers have noted that the engine from an Ababil-3 crashed in Syria bears a strong resemblance to one advertised by MADO.
Iran’s engine-development claims are hard to evaluate, but the IRGC appeared to mark a milestone in its drone production when it rolled out the Shahed-129 drone in late 2012.
Up until then, Iran’s drone fleet mostly included smaller aircraft with short range and endurance. IRGC minders claimed—but experts have been unable to independently verify—that the larger Shahed can fly for 24 hours straight.
For future drone production, the IRGC has signaled that it’s interested in building more powerful drone engines at home. In 2012 Iran’s Aviation Industries Organization claimed to be capable of producing turbofan engines. And last year, Iran’s defense minister emphasized the need to shift to jet engines from the simple piston engines Tehran’s agents have been sneaking from Europe.
Wright notes that Iran likely has a turbojet capability, as evident in its longer-range Karrar UAV. But Iran’s ability to make turbofans is less clear. “There’s been talk since at least 2012 about producing turbofans, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence one way or another yet,” Wright says.
Making drones that can fire guided missiles appears to be a more difficult feat for Iran’s aviation industry. During the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian forces equipped early versions of the Mohajer UAV with RPG-7s rocket-propelled grenades. More recently, Iran claimed that its turbojet-powered Karrar drone could drop bombs as well as fire a type of homebrew guided missile called the Sadid.
Up until this point, much of Iran’s drone strike capability comes from engineers packing the vehicles with explosives that detonate once the robot crashes into a target. When Israel shot down one of Hezbollah’s Ababil drones during the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, investigators found 30 kilos of explosives in the wreckage.
But at the Shahed’s media debut, IRGC officials made sure to tell reporters the plane could carry eight Sadid missiles. Footage aired on Iranian television at the time showed a Shahed in flight firing a projectile. The camera quickly cut to a new scene of a missile slamming into a target.
Away from the cameras, though, Iran may be having trouble delivering on its drone missile hype. “Shahid-129 was supposed to get armaments in form of Sadid air-to-ground missiles, but research and development of these cannot be completed,” says Tom Cooper. “It’s because of items Iran can’t obtain due to U.S. sanctions.”
Imagery from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq tends to support the idea that all might not be well with Saidid production. Despite the heavy involvement of Iranian drones in the Syrian conflict, observers have yet to capture an image of one bearing missiles … or receive credible reports of a direct strike by an Iranian UAV.
Sightings of Shahed-like aircraft are rare over Syria compared to other UAV types, but no one has yet spotted a missile-bearing Shahed-129 in the conflict. That same goes for Iraq, where Iranian drones are reportedly surveilling Islamic State terrorists on behalf of the Iraqi government.
Iran and its proxies, however, would very much like the world to believe its drones are killer drones, like America’s Predators and Reapers.
In early 2014, Iraq’s Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq armed group released a video purporting to show militia members directing a Shahed-129 missile strike against Islamic State targets in Iraq.
“Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq is a directly controlled proxy of Iran and was developed during the Iraq War from splinters originally associated with Muqtada Al Sadr’s Jaysh Al Mahdi,” explains Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland who tracks Islamist militant groups.
Closer analysis, however, reveals the heavily edited and stylized video to be a forgery. The footage of missile strikes is actually from videos released by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense showing its manned aircraft striking Islamic State with American-provided Hellfire missiles.
“Since online distribution networks are jointly operated between Iran and their proxies, with IRGC maintaining a good level of control, it’s logical to say that Iran okayed distribution of the video,” Smyth says. “Furthermore, since it showcases a piece of Iranian equipment, it’s highly likely Tehran pushed the clip out.”
Iran’s drones have undoubtedly improved the IRGC’s surveillance capability, but they likely lack the kind of communications infrastructure that can allow operators to control them from greater distances and receive more data from advanced sensors.
That’s the job of a space program, whose satellites can deliver beyond-line-of-sight communications and greater bandwidth.
It’s unclear whether Iran has expanded satellite communications to its UAVs. Military trade organization Jane’s recently noticed a Shahed-like UAV over Syria sporting a nose bulge that may suggest a satellite capability. Even still, Iran’s nascent space program has only been able to launch a handful of basic satellites so far.
By contrast, the Pentagon still struggles to provide enough bandwidth for its remotely-piloted planes—even with dozens of satellites.
Iran’s UAV program by no means lives up to its propaganda, nor has it reached parity with those of more advanced military powers such as the United States, China or other countries.
Nonetheless, Tehran’s drones have demonstrated a respectable capability given the limitations of sanctions and international isolation. And they need not be on par with more advanced American robots in order to be of value.
Iranian drones scouting for targets in Syria have proven all too lethal to the innocent civilians and rebels whom they help target. Witnesses there often report the presence of Mohajers and Ababils directing more accurate rocket and artillery fire onto their positions, filling in for Syria’s beleaguered air force.
As the U.S. Defense Department’s annual report on Iran’s military power points out, unmanned technology is a relative bright spot for the Iranian air force, which struggles to maintain its manned fighters amid sanctions.
Aside from sanctions, the disorganization of Iran’s domestic weapons industry can also work against the Islamic republic’s drone progress.
“Judging from other aerospace projects however, the biggest challenge might not be any specific engineering or design problem, but organizational management,” Wright says. “Industrial projects of all sorts, not just those in the defense sector, are often beset by a lack of coordination, compartmentalization and parochial interests of this or that development team.”
“There’s no telling whether or not or to what degree this affect the various subsidiaries of the [Iran Aviation Industries Organization] or external bodies like the IRGC’s research agencies,” Wright continues, “but it’s something to keep in mind.”
Cooper agrees. “Iranians are generally lacking industrial management skills and corruption is so endemic that, although they the capacity, know-how and technology, they simply can’t organize.”
As for the future, Iran’s military is likely to maintain its focus on expanding and improving its unmanned fleet. To that end, Cooper says that his Iranian sources tell him that Iran’s Defense Industries Organization plans to roll out a UAV-related “surprise” in September.