The Iranian Drone Threat

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Among the U.S.’s core interests in the Middle East are ensuring the security of its allies, combatting terrorism, countering arms proliferation, and ensuring freedom of navigation for global energy supplies and commercial shipping. Iran’s military Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program is an emerging strategic threat that complicates the U.S.’s pursuit of each of the aforementioned regional security interests.

As a revisionist regional power, Iran’s overarching foreign policy objective is supplanting the United States to become the dominant military and political influence in the Middle East. This is a tall order for Iran’s revolutionary regime, presiding over a decaying theocratic and dictatorial political system plagued by endemic corruption and frequent civil unrest. Iran is a middling military power, outpaced by the U.S. and its regional partners in terms of military spending and personnel. Iran’s conventional armaments are qualitatively inferior and out-of-date, with sanctions and an international embargo limiting Iran’s access and ability to purchase upgraded systems or keep up with the latest technological innovations in fields such as air and missile defense.

Iran recognizes that it would be a waste of its resources to seek military parity with its U.S.-backed foes and has thus adopted low-risk, cost-effective measures to maximize its advantages when it comes to defending itself and spreading the Islamic Revolution.

One asymmetric arena where Iran has expended considerable investment is in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, giving Iran an additional means of lethal power projection outside of its borders. Iran is also providing UAV systems to its proxies who act on Tehran’s behalf, further enhancing its ability to threaten the U.S. and its allies.

According to a November 2019 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment of Iran’s military strength, “UAVs are Iran’s most rapidly advancing air capability.” UAVs serve two primary military functions, surveillance, and attack. Iran’s capabilities in both continue to grow, spurred by increased investment in domestic drone manufacturing and technological advancements, and by accessible innovations in the commercial drone market. Drones help Iran make up for shortcomings in aerial reconnaissance capabilities and are used by Iran’s conventional armed forces and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) applications.

In the past decade, Iran has also accelerated its efforts to develop indigenously designed and manufactured weaponized UAV systems and to transform its ISR drones into versatile platforms with integrated or suicide attack capabilities. In tandem with its missile arsenal, drones augment Iran’s lack of conventional long-range airstrike capabilities and Iran has used UAVs in both offensive and retaliatory air-to-ground attacks. As its drone forces have grown in sophistication, they increasingly give Iran the ability to carry out strikes with precision. Still, drones are considered to be at the lower end of military threats facing the U.S. and its partners, especially due to recent advances in air and missile defense. The threat increases, however, as Iran’s drones grow increasingly sophisticated and it continues to experiment with drone swarms and combined drone and cruise or ballistic missile attacks in an effort to probe and beat air defense systems.

Drones have numerous advantages over manned strike platforms, which have added to their efficacy in Iran’s asymmetric toolkit. They are less costly to build and maintain than manned combat aircraft and have fewer costs associated with training, as manned aircraft require pilots and crewmembers to operate. Iran has struggled to obtain parts to maintain its aging air force due to international sanctions but has succeeded in developing an indigenous drone capability as many of the systems, parts, and equipment for UAVs are more commonly commercially available and include numerous technologies with dual civilian-military uses. Drones can potentially have longer flight endurance, greater maneuverability, and lower observability than conventional combat aircraft.

Iran’s combat aircraft program has fallen so far behind the latest innovations in air defense that it would be prohibitively costly for Iran to catch up, to say nothing of the procurement hurdles it would face. Drones represent a far cheaper and easier alternative to develop and, as an added advantage, are a platform that is more difficult for the U.S. and its allies to defend against. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has largely oriented its research and strategic planning toward air defense systems intended to counter medium and long-range high-altitude, fast-moving threats, such as ballistic missiles. While there are now at least 12 Patriot missile batteries and one Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery in the region to protect U.S. military assets and allies from longer-range aerial threats, the layout of U.S. air defense systems has created short-range coverage vulnerabilities that Iran has used low-flying drones and cruise missiles to exploit.

The current air defense systems in place have proven capable of neutralizing drones at times when called upon but have also had several failures as they are not ideally situated to protect a country like Saudi Arabia with expansive territory and long coastlines. Further, it is costlier to defend against drones with air defense systems or fighter jets than it is for Iran to produce, maintain, and operate them. A single Patriot surface-to-air missile can cost between $2-3 million, making defending against a drone swarm an extremely expensive proposition.

Drones also serve a domestic and external propagandistic purpose for the Iranian regime in addition to their military applications. Their use in combat operations signals to enemies that Iran is able to project strength around the region using the latest military technologies, even in the face of an international sanctions regime and arms embargo. They are, therefore, a symbol of national pride and resilience. Iran frequently displays its advances in defense technologies in military parades and defense exhibitions, and drones have become a focal point. Iran often inflates the true depth of its military achievements, making it hard to separate fact from fiction at times when Iran describes the capabilities of its drone systems. This strategic use of misinformation is meant to deter adversaries from engaging in hostilities with Tehran by increasing their threat perception and signaling the Iranian public that the regime has the means and ability to provide for defense of the homeland.

While it is therefore difficult to gauge the full scope of the Iranian drone threat, Iran’s use of drones in various combat operations in recent years has demonstrated a rapid advancement in capabilities that pose a tactical threat to the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies. Addressing the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie warned that UAVs represent “the most concerning tactical development in the CENTCOM area of operations since the rise of the improvised explosive device.” Iran has used drones to harass U.S. air carriers and threaten freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, gain military advantage in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, and breach Israeli and Saudi airspace. The clearest illumination of the Iranian drone threat came in September 2019, when Iran is believed to be culpable for a series of missile strikes and a drone swarm that carried out precision attacks against Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility and Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed credit for the Abqaiq attack, a claim the U.S. disputes. However, it is indisputable that the Houthis have created an upstart drone program and that Tehran provides its drones. A March 2017 investigative report from Conflict Armament Research found that the Houthis Qasef-1 drone featured identical design, construction, and serial number prefixes as the Iranian Ababil-T, indicating that the Houthi UAVs were direct Iranian imports.

Iran’s provision of weaponized drones to the Houthis highlights another facet of the Iranian drone threat, namely that Iran is proliferating drones and related technologies to its terrorist and militia proxies in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Iranian proxies, most notably Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias, have all benefitted from Iran’s technical drone know-how and possess drones either manufactured in Iran or based on Iranian models. The provision of drones to its proxies gives Iran increased ability to threaten the U.S. and its regional allies. As Iran’s own drone expertise increases, its proxies’ capabilities are likely to grow as well.

Iran’s military drone program is an important component in its growing footprint around the Middle East. Tehran and its proxies are using drones with increasing frequency to confront the U.S. and its allies. Iran is still essentially in the early stages of using drones for attacks rather than just surveillance, but the Abqaiq attack demonstrated that Iran has gained the ability to carry out complex, integrated drone swarm and missile attacks. As Iran and its proxies grow increasingly proficient in these tactics, they may seek to undertake crippling strikes against adversaries’ critical infrastructure or sensitive facilities, such as oil storage and nuclear reactors. Containing Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions will require the U.S. and its regional allies to bolster their collaborative defenses against the Iranian drone threat.

This report analyzes the history and capabilities of Iran’s drone program, the malign use of Iranian drones in the region, and the regime’s provision of drones and drone technology to its proxies. It concludes with actionable policy recommendations on how to combat this emerging threat.