Iran's Army of Drones, Target of Syria Strike: Rising Force or Limited Threat?

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"Shahed 129" (Witness 129) being shown in Tehran, September 27, 2013.
"Shahed 129" (Witness 129) being shown in Tehran, September 27, 2013.Credit: AFP PHOTO / SEPAH NEWS
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

UPDATE: Israel says downed Iranian drone in February was armed and heading for attack

The recent airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel has brought to the forefront Iran’s intentions of establishing a network of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) in that country. The project could expand the Islamic Republic’s capabilities of gathering intelligence and prepare the groundwork for possible attacks.

Iran began producing drones in the 1980s, building dozens of them, mainly for spying and aerial photography. In recent years, since joining the fighting in support of the Assad regime, its drones have been seen in the skies of Syria and Iraq.

Israel believes it still has the upper hand when it comes to drones, but that the Iranian ones do constitute a limited threat.

“Israel has a significant lead in terms of drone capabilities by almost every parameter,” a former senior official in the defense establishment says. “But even though they don’t have the top technology, their drones can still do good and efficient work for them.”

In recent years Iran has been exporting these drones to its militias in Syria and Iraq, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. One of them, the Hamaseh, weighs 414 kilograms and can carry sensors and missiles. It can remain airborne for 11 hours, with a maximum flight distance of 200 kilometers. In 2006 the IDF intercepted a drone that Hezbollah tried to fly over Israel. It carried 30 kilograms of explosives. It is believed that Iran can deploy a drone system for offensive purposes, even if they don’t have the precise capabilities they attribute to these drones.

A prolonged stay in Syria will enable Iran to increase its threat to Israel, as well as augmenting the transfer of war materiel and forces into Syria and Lebanon. Iran does not intend to give up on its aims. Thus, maintaining Hezbollah’s capabilities, as well as those of other organizations, creates a single front threatening Israel, ranging from southern Lebanon to the Golan Heights. The drone project is one of the means Iran has of attaining this goal.

Another key goal is the construction of high-quality armaments factories in Syria and Lebanon, which Israel has marked as a red line. It is likely that whoever attacked the T-4 air base in Syria was also trying to damage other targets intended for Hezbollah, items that would have threatened Israel’s air superiority and freedom to operate over Lebanon. Given the time of attack and the number of casualties one may assume that whoever carried it out knew of the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards at the site, including a senior officer in the drone network.

T4 Syrian Air Force Base.Credit: Google / DigitalGlobe
Brigadier General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh looking at what Iranian officials claim is the US RQ-170 Sentinel high-altitude reconnaissance drone that crashed in Iran on December 4, 2011Credit: AFP

The Iranian drone project was hurt by international sanctions that were imposed on the Islamic Republic over the years. Iran was obliged to purchase engines and other parts manufactured by Western countries in roundabout ways, with prices accordingly increased threefold. Iran subsequently started manufacturing engines on its own. Despite the progress made, the technological standard of most of its drones is low. 

“Even though Iran can produce these drones on its own, the gaps between us remain large,” a former senior defense establishment official says. “What worries us are mainly its intentions and the significance of the presence of these drones in the area.”

The main difficulty facing the Islamic Republic is its lack of a military satellite. Most Iranian aerial vehicles cannot transmit information to their handlers in real time. Any intelligence can be used only after the drones return to base. Some of them can communicate through radar but this applies only to short ranges. The establishment of the large military complex near Homs, the one attacked earlier this week, is vital for Iran. It employs trailers for operating the drones, like the one Israel attacked after an Iranian drone entered its territory two months ago.

Iran is also trying to imitate Western drones. Six years ago it presented the Shahed-129, an unmanned vehicle used for long range missions. According to Tehran this drone can be used for gathering intelligence as well to carry out attack missions. The defense establishment believes it is a copy of a British drone, the WK-450, which is based on Israel’s Hermes 450. Iran is focusing on copying external features and technical capabilities.

Seven years ago, an American spy drone nicknamed the Beast of Kandahar fell in eastern Iran. It revieved its name due to the secrecy shrouding it and because it was observed in Afghanistan. Iran built two drones based on this model, one with a jet engine that it claims is identical to the original, and another, smaller, with a different engine, that entered Israel two months ago. Its downing casts doubt on its stealth, which the Iranians claim to have reproduced.

Over the years Iran has displayed many copies of Western aerial vehicles, claiming it had achieved advanced capabilities. It is believed in the West that their display at exhibitions or in air shows was mainly meant for propaganda purposes.

Iran is now trying to upgrade its drones and put jet engines in them, which would make them quieter and faster. Israel believes Iran can already operate such drones, however it’s unclear what their capabilities are.

“Imitating the form, even if impressively, does not mean they’ve copied the capabilities,” says Tal Inbar, an expert on drones. “They may have significantly improved their vehicles and their capabilities, but the gap between them and American or Israeli drones is still very large. I doubt whether their claims about capabilities are true.”

In 2005, the Revolutionary Guards second-in-command, Hossein Salami, said in an interview on Iranian TV: “We’ve reached a very significant juncture in our drone technology. Our abilities are so advanced that one of our stealth drones can fly for 30 consecutive hours. Its operational range is 3,000 kilometers and it has exceptional detection and assault capabilities.”

Even if these figures are wrong, Iran will not quickly relinquish its drive for advanced drones.

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