The Iranian Drone Threat

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History and Capabilities of Iran’s Combat Drone Program

Iran has built up an arsenal of locally produced drones and exported drone technologies to its allies, enhancing Tehran’s ability to threaten the U.S. and its Middle Eastern allies. From the 1980s to present, Iran has continuously advanced its military UAV program, seeking to improve its fleets’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and to field UAVs able to carry out airstrikes. In the last decade in particular, Iran has unveiled numerous new drone systems, many of which have been used in combat, which demonstrate the advancements Iran has made in the UAV space. Iran now claims to have drones capable of delivering precision-guided missiles with ranges of 2000 km., flight endurances over 24 hours, and stealth capabilities. While its boasts are often exaggerated for propagandistic purposes, the advancement of its drone program represents a technological triumph for the Islamic Republic.

Understanding the history, evolution, scope, and capabilities of Iran’s drone program is vital for policymakers wishing to contend with the Iranian drone threat.

Mohajer

The genesis of Iran’s drone program dates back to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. After the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 and subsequent hostage crisis, Iran was newly isolated on the world stage from its traditional allies and arms suppliers, particularly the United States which severed military and diplomatic relations with the new regime. As a result, Iran’s military procurement strategy came to heavily emphasize self-sufficiency, a trend which remains prevalent in the present day. At the height of the war, Iran sought a way to rein in the large number of casualties it was sustaining and looked to drone surveillance of enemy positions as an avenue for mitigation. In 1985, the IRGC formed the Quds Aviation Industry Company as a wing of its Self-Sufficiency Organization and later that year, it developed Iran’s first drone, the Mohajer-1 (Immigrant).

The Mohajer-1 was unsophisticated in design and was fitted with a single oblique camera in its nose, likely a still camera whose film would be developed upon recovery. Iran used the drones in the later stages of the war to photograph Iraqi infantry positions in preparation for offensives, and to yield intelligence that would prevent Iranian troops from walking into ambushes. Tehran also reportedly attempted to outfit the drones with rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers under each wing, but it is unclear whether Iran carried out drone attacks during the war. These early armaments would likely have been ineffective and inaccurate, as they would rely on the drone operators’ line of sight from their position on the ground. While the use of the Mohajer-1 did not majorly impact the outcome of the war, the early experience in drone production and primitive attempts to arm them laid the institutional groundwork for Iran’s development and use of combat drones in subsequent decades.

Beginning in the 1990s, Iran developed several new variants of the Mohajer, with later iterations boasting increased range and flight endurance. Iran also continued efforts to transform the platform from an ISR drone into one with viable attack and air-defense capabilities. A later model, the Mohajer-4, was capable of being equipped with air-to-air QW-1 MANPADS, for instance, which would give it the ability to confront enemy aircraft in midair. Iran upgraded the Mohajer’s surveillance capabilities as well, as later iterations were capable of providing real-time video footage.

Mohajer-6 (Wikipedia) Mohajer-6 (Wikipedia)

The Mohajer-2, first observed in 1996, had a range of 50 km. and an endurance of 1.5 hours. The newest version, the Mohajer-6, which was first announced in 2016 and went into mass production in 2018, demonstrates the rapid advancements Iran has made in drone technology in recent years. According to the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), the Mohajer-6 has a range of 200 km. and an endurance of 12 hours. It is a persistent ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) UAV, meaning that its operators have the integrated capacity to process the raw intelligence data collected through surveillance and reconnaissance in real-time in order to plan and develop military operations, such as where precisely to carry out missile strikes. The Mohajer-6 is manufactured by the Iran Aviation Industry Organization (IAIO), which operates under the command of MODAFL. IAIO absorbed the Quds Aviation Industry Company in March 1998.

MODAFL claims the Mohajer-6 “can be equipped with laser-guided missiles and different types of bombs to carry out offensive operations,” making it the first drone in the Mohajer class capable of being armed with a guided weapons system. According to Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami, “Drone Mohajer-6, equipped with the smart Qa’em precision-striking bombs and different electro-optical explorers and different warheads, can trace, intercept and destroy the target.”

Upon receiving its first batch of three Mohajer-6s in July 2019, Brigadier General Shahram Hassannejad, head of the army ground force’s drone unit, noted,  “With the deployment of these unmanned aerial vehicles, any threat to the Iranian borders and even beyond the borders, will be identified, tracked down and removed before it could even take form.”

There are numerous reported uses by Iran’s regular army and the IRGC of Mohajer variants in the decades following the Iran-Iraq War both inside and outside of the country and over surrounding waterways. An early model of the Mohajer was used on reconnaissance missions in Afghanistan during that country’s civil war during the late 1990s. Later models have been used for maritime surveillance of warships transiting the Strait of Hormuz and for enforcing internal and border security by the regular army and IRGC, particularly in restive provinces with militant separatist groups, such as Sistan and Baluchestan. The Mohajer-6 has reportedly been used against al-Qaeda affiliated Jaysh ul-Adl militants, and in July 2019 was used in a retaliatory attack on Kurdish dissidents in Iraq after an attack that killed three IRGC soldiers. Beyond achieving its immediate objectives, Iran’s use of the Mohajer-6 in military operations was likely meant to showcase its advancements in drone capabilities to its adversaries, and to prove to potential buyers that the system is combat tested.

Mohajer UAVs have been used in operations in neighboring countries and represent a proliferation risk as Iran has provided them to its proxies. Iran has sold Mohajer variants to Hezbollah, likely using Syria as a transshipment point, and the terrorist group has infiltrated Israeli airspace with them on several occasions as of 2004. Beginning in 2007, Iran, as part of its efforts to bolster ties with U.S. adversaries in the western hemisphere, exported kits to the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez for the assemblage of early-generation Mohajer-2 ISR drones. As of 2013, Venezuela’s air force was believed to have roughly a dozen Mohajer-2s, known locally as the Arpia, in operation. Mohajer variants are also reported to have been used during the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, particularly in the fight against ISIS, although it is not clear what forces, be they Iran-backed militias or Iran itself, have been operating them. Their use in these conflicts is known because Mohajers were downed in Syria and Iraq on several occasions during 2014 and 2015.

Ababil

After first building and flying the Mohajer-1 during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran went on to build lines of other indigenously produced UAV systems. One of the earliest systems, the Ababil (Swallow), was also reportedly designed and manufactured during the later stages of the Iran-Iraq War, although it is not known with certainty if the Ababil was used by Iran during the war. According to Iranian IRGC-linked media, the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industry (HESA) began mass production of the original Ababil-1 in September 1986. Like the Quds Aviation Industry Company, HESA is a subsidiary of IAIO under the command of MODAFL.

The original Ababil-1 was reportedly a loitering munition – a weapons system that would hover searching for a target and would attack upon finding one – that effectively functioned as a suicide drone. The Ababil-1 was considered disposable and was capable of carrying 40 kg. of explosives, which would detonate upon impact. If it was used during the Iran-Iraq War, it likely would have only been effective against Iraqi defensive positions and fortified reinforcements as opposed to personnel or other soft targets due to the lack of fragmentation.

During the 1990s, HESA set about reengineering the Ababil, subsequently releasing and mass producing several new evolutions of the UAV. The second generation, the Ababil-2, was publicly unveiled for the first time in 1999. It has several variants for different purposes. The Ababil-B is a targeting drone used for training air defense crews by mimicking enemy aircraft, while the Ababil-S is a surveillance drone that shares the same airframe as the Ababil-B, but also has an electro-optical payload. The Ababil-S’ surveillance capabilities are considered rudimentary due to its short flight endurance time and the fact that it can only operate daylight TV cameras due to weight and size limitations.

A third variant, the Ababil-T, is characterized by twin tails, which IRGC-linked media claims gives it increased speed and range. The Ababil-T can be outfitted with payloads for targeting, surveillance, and disposable strike munitions for use in suicide missions. The Ababil-B has been used frequently by the IRGC and regular Army for targeting purposes, but the surveillance and twin-tailed models are not known to have been used operationally by Iranian forces. Iran has reportedly provided Ababil-Ts to Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, however, and the proxies have employed them against Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah calls its Ababil-Ts the Mirsad 1, while the Houthis have named it the Qasef-1. The Houthis have also created an upgraded variant called the Qasef-2k.

Reflecting Iran’s advances in drone capabilities over the last decade, Iran’s newest-generation Ababil, the Ababil-3, is an ISR drone with far more sophisticated surveillance capabilities than its predecessor. The Ababil-3 shares similar design characteristics and components as South Africa’s Denel Dynamics Seeker, indicating Iran may have received Seekers at some point and began locally producing its own version, or even just rebadged the Seekers as Ababil-3s. It has a range of 100 km. and a flight endurance of four hours. The Ababil-3 went into production in 2008 and first appeared in use not in Iran, but by the Sudanese government later that year for surveillance and precision targeting in the conflict in southern Sudan. The Ababil-3 was first displayed by Iran during a military exercise simulating reconnaissance of vessels transiting the Persian Gulf in May 2010. It has since been used by Iran in various conflict zones, most frequently in Syria. In 2014, two Iranians, one of whom also had German citizenship, were charged in Germany for a 2008-2009 scheme to circumvent trade sanctions with Iran by declaring 61 German Limbach engines as jet ski engines in order to pass through customs. A court statement noted that the engines were suitable for use in Ababil-3s. The incident highlights one of the enduring challenges facing Iran’s drone program, its reliance on Western components, particularly engines, that are subject to embargoes. Because of these hurdles, it is believed that Iran may have turned to a Chinese-sourced knock-off of the Limbach engine for use in its Ababil-3s.

Atlas carrying Qa’em guided bombs (Tasnim) Atlas carrying Qa’em guided bombs (Tasnim)

In April 2020, at a ceremony marking Army Day, Iran displayed several new UAV systems which it delivered to its army for the first time. Among the systems which the army’s air force and air defense units took delivery of was an upgraded Ababil-3. The Ababil-3 is now reportedly mounted with Qa’em precision-guided bombs, indicating that Iran has converted the Ababil from an ISR drone to one with combat capabilities. While Iran has produced several drone systems over the past decade specifically for combat purposes, the conversion of the Ababil-3, like the Mohajer-6 before, shows that Iran is focused on upgrading ISR platforms into drones with integrated attack capabilities. Iran also unveiled an upgraded version of the Ababil-3 called the Atlas at the Army Day ceremony. The Atlas has a similar body to the Ababil-3, but boasts an improved landing mechanism, hydraulics, and an automatic takeoff and landing system. The Atlas’s body and wings have also been fortified to allow it to carry two Qa’em bombs.

Karrar

Iran’s dedicated effort to indigenously produce attack drones began in earnest during the mid-2000s and bore fruit between 2010 and 2020, a decade which witnessed Iran unveil a variety of new combat UAV platforms. The first of these that Iran revealed was the Karrar (Striker) in 2010, which was also one of the drones on display at the 2020 Army Day ceremony. Billed by Iran as its first long-range UAV with dual strike and reconnaissance capabilities, the Karrar was characteristic of Iranian military bluster, as the UAV’s claimed attack capabilities were almost certainly oversold by Tehran.

Karrar (Wikimedia Commons) Karrar (Wikimedia Commons)

Underscoring that the Karrar’s primary utility to Iran was as a propaganda tool, the UAV was unveiled a day after Iran inaugurated the Bushehr nuclear reactor, signaling to adversaries that Iran had arrived as a nuclear and military power on the regional stage. In a ceremony to introduce the new UAV, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that while Iran’s primary message was one of friendship to the region and that the drone was meant to deter enemies from attacking Iran, the Karrar would serve as “a messenger of death for enemies of mankind.” State television declared at the time that the Karrar had “different capabilities, including carrying bombs to destroy targets” and could fly for a “long range at high speed.” Then-Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said that the Karrar is a “symbol of the versatility and advancement of Iran’s defense industries.”

The Karrar, manufactured by HESA, is a rudimentary UAV, powered by a single turbojet engine whose design combines aspects from U.S. Beechcraft targeting drones exported to Iran pre-Islamic Revolution and South African Denel Dynamics Skua high-speed targeting drones. Iran claimed that the Karrar has a range of 1000 km., can operate at high or low altitudes, and is capable of carrying two 250 lb. bombs or one 500 lb. guided missile. Carrying such heavy ordnance under its wings or atop its centerline would greatly reduce its operational range, however. Since its introduction, the Karrar mainly appears to have functioned almost exclusively as a targeting drone for Iran’s air-defense systems and not as a “striker,” as its name suggests. Nevertheless, at the April 2020 Army Day ceremony, Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami claimed that the Karrar was capable of carrying out air-to-ground strikes and that the drone had been upgraded for use on suicide missions, effectively acting as a cruise missile. Given Iranian officials penchant for distorting their military technological prowess, these claims cannot be verified and should be regarded with skepticism until they are verified in combat.

Shahed-129

In September 2012, two years after introducing the Karrar, Iran unveiled the Shahed-129 (Witness), a substantive step forward in terms of Iran’s effort to develop a strike-capable combat UAV. Up until that point, Iran’s drone fleet consisted exclusively of smaller aircraft with short ranges and flight endurance. This was due in large part to sanctions and export control regimes preventing Iran from acquiring technologically sophisticated dual-use components for larger, more lethal drones, as such components would set off alarm bells. Iran sought to manufacture as many of its drones as it could domestically and was able to get the components it needed, such as German Limbach engines, from arms brokers for a markup, or through schemes such as establishing front companies which would ship components to IAIO with fraudulent shipping labels.  

By 2012, Iran claimed to have made advances in its indigenous engine production capabilities, and the rollout of the Shahed-129 that September seemed to confirm this, although Iranian officials almost certainly exaggerated the new drone’s capabilities. The Shahed-129 is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) with combat, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (CISR) functionality. It is believed to be modeled after the Israeli Hermes-450, a drone which Iran had previously claimed to have captured and potentially reverse-engineered. IRGC officials boasted that the Shahed-129 had a range of 1700 km., a flight endurance of 24 hours, and was capable of carrying up to eight Sadid guided air-to-ground missiles.

Shahed-129 (Wikimedia Commons) Shahed-129 (Wikimedia Commons)

IRGC officials heralded the Shahed-129 as a symbol of Iran’s advances in UCAV technology. The drone, designed by the IRGC’s Shahed Aviation Industries and manufactured by HESA, went into mass-production a year later and the IRGC’s then-Commander-in-Chief Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari marked the occasion by claiming the Shahed-129 demonstrated Iran had achieved self-sufficiency in its UAV industrial sector. “This aircraft is a work of art, only the U.S. has the ability to build weapons of such a technological grade. All the world powers will be awestruck,” said Jafari. Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC Aerospace Division, which also controls Iran’s ballistic missile program, stated at the time, “The Shahed 129 [UAV] can easily track and identify bandits, terrorists and drug smugglers as well as anyone targeting the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sustainable security and can fire missiles at them upon orders from commanders.”

Analysts, however, had doubts that the Shahed-129, at least in its earliest iteration, could actually function as a fully integrated combat UAV system. Iran released a video marking the 2012 debut of the Shahed-129 showing the drone in flight launching a missile but the footage then quickly cut to a new scene of a missile striking a target, casting doubt that the UAV actually possessed precision-strike capabilities. Israeli analysts further noted that the Sadid missiles in early images of the UAV were not enclosed in canisters, which would expose their sensitive electronics systems to weather conditions in flight that could cause malfunction. Despite its supposed range of 1700 km., the early Shahed-129 lacked communications capabilities and was reliant on a ground-operator, which, based on its datalink, would have limited its operational range to around 200 km.

Seemingly affirming its lack of strike capability, a drone believed to be the Shahed-129 began appearing in the Syrian civil war around Damascus in 2014, but was initially not witnessed carrying arms. The drone in question may have been a Shahed-123, a smaller, unarmed variant. By late 2015, however, Iran made a series of upgrades to the Shahed-129 which enabled it to fulfill its potential as a combat UAV capable of delivering air-to-ground missiles. Because of procurement issues due to sanctions, Iran’s research and development into the Sadid-1 was not completed as of 2016 and the missile was not integrated or operationally deployed with the Shahed-129. Iran instead developed a new munition, the Sadid-345, a precision-guided glide bomb, which became the Shahed-129’s primary weapon. In February 2016, Iran also unveiled an upgraded version of the Shahed-129 with which Iran claimed had satellite navigation capabilities, a claim which, if true, would increase the drone’s operational range and reduce reliance on ground-control operators, marking a big leap forward for Iran’s drone program. As Iran has, at times, struggled to successfully launch satellites, however, this claim is dubious. By late 2015, Iran carried out its first air-to-ground strikes using the Shahed-129 in Syria, demonstrating for the first time in combat that Iranian UCAVs were capable of air-to-ground missile strikes.

Iran notes that the Shahed-129 is additionally used for reconnaissance and patrolling its territorial and maritime borders. It is known to use the Shahed-129 to patrol along its border with Pakistan in Sistan and Baluchestan province, an area known for drug smuggling and home to an armed separatist movement. In 2015, a Shahed-129 crashed on the Iranian side of the border with Pakistan, and in 2017, Pakistan shot down a Shahed-129 that reportedly crossed 3-4 km. into its airspace.

The Shahed-129 is today Iran’s most combat-tested UCAV platform and one of the only systems in Iran’s arsenal to have proven capabilities of conducting air-to-ground missile strikes. In December 2019, Iran’s navy unveiled the Simorgh, the Navy’s version of the Shahed-129.

Saeqeh

The IRGC officially revealed the first Saeqeh, manufactured by Shahed Aviation Industries, in October 2016 at a defense expo showcasing Iran’s advances in the UAV arena. However, the system’s true genesis dated back to December 2011 when Iran recovered a downed U.S. Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel stealth UAV intact with minimal damage.

The 2011 incident was a major propaganda and substantive victory for Iran. The IRGC claimed to have hacked and taken over the controls to bring down the $6 million UAV, which originated from a U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan and whose presence demonstrated that the U.S. was conducting covert surveillance of Iran’s nuclear program. It is more plausible that the Sentinel was not, in fact, detected by the IRGC and instead crash landed due to a system malfunction. The intact drone possessed many technological secrets, such as stealth capabilities, sophisticated electronics, and Iran was able to extract video footage that the drone had recorded.

Iran claimed, plausibly, that Russia and China had asked for permission to inspect the downed drone. Immediately thereafter, Iran set to work seeking to reverse-engineer the drone so that it could indigenously produce its own version. In May 2014, it presented a crude mock-up of the RQ-170, believed to be constructed of fiberglass, at an aerospace exhibition in Tehran and attempted to pass it off as a functional stealth UAV with added attack capabilities. Notably, the model had identical tires and landing gears to the captured RQ-170, parts Iran would not have had access to. The model, which was displayed alongside the actual captured aircraft, was a full-size replica of the RQ-170 dubbed by Iran the Shahed-171. Despite the fakery, an IRGC officer claimed on state TV at the time, “Our engineers succeeded in breaking the drone’s secrets and copying them. It will soon take a test flight.” Surveying Iran’s latest achievement, Supreme Leader Khamenei remarked “This drone is very important for reconnaissance missions.”

In November 2014, Iran released video footage that it claimed showed its supposed RQ-170 clone in flight. The aircraft portrayed, however, was far smaller than the RQ-170. As mentioned above, the IRGC officially unveiled the Saeqeh (later known as Saeqeh-1), a smaller version of the RQ-170 that retained the original’s wing-shape, but lacked its frontal air intake, in October 2016. It is possible that the drone on display in 2016 was the same model as the drone from the November 2014 flight video footage. Iran billed the Saeqeh-1 as a long-range UCAV capable of externally carrying four electro-optically precision-guided Sadid-1 anti-tank missiles. With characteristic bluster, IRGC Aerospace Commander Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh proclaimed that Iran’s drone industry was now among the world’s top four, and that Iran has better aviation systems and equipment than the U.S.

Saeqeh-2 (Wikimedia Commons) Saeqeh-2 (Wikimedia Commons)

Although it was never formally unveiled, Iran apparently possesses a newer variant of the Saeqeh, known as Saeqeh-2 or Shahed-191 and has displayed it at defense expos. The IRGC conducted a drone war game, in March 2019 that featured 50 drones based on the RQ-170, indicating that Iran has produced a large number of Saeqehs in a relatively short period. The war game was called “Toward Jerusalem,” highlighting that Iran views its drone prowess as an integral component of its long-term desire to liberate Israel from Zionist control.

According to Iranian state media, all the UCAVs involved in the exercise successfully bombed a target on an island in Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. If true, this claim would corroborate Iran’s purported UCAV precision-strike capability. According to Jeremy Binnie of Jane’s Defence Weekly, the exercise confirmed that Iran has propeller (Saeqeh-1) and jet-powered (Saeqeh-2/Shahed-191) variants of the Saeqeh. Both variants are launched from vehicle-mounted racks off pickup trucks speeding down a runway.

The Saeqeh-1 carried its ordnance externally and landed on fixed bars, while the Saeqeh-2 had an internal bay for carrying weaponry and landed on retractable skids. The Saeqeh-2’s innovations would make it an inherently stealthier craft. The Saeqeh-2 is reported to have an operational range of 450 km. and flight endurance of 4.5 hours, with a top speed of 300 km./hr. It can reportedly carry a 50 kg. payload, enough for two Sadid smart bombs.

Yasir

The RQ-170 Sentinel is not the only U.S. drone Iran claims to have captured and subsequently reverse engineered. In December 2012, the IRGC claimed that it hijacked a Boeing ScanEagle UAV conducting an ISR mission in its airspace over Kharg Island, off Iran’s southern coast in the Persian Gulf. The ScanEagle is a small, low-cost ISR UAV with a wingspan of 10 feet, a flight endurance of 20 hours, and a range of over 100 km. The IRGC released footage of the captured drone, which appeared to have sustained only minimal damage. For its part, the U.S. Navy denied that it had lost any drones on recent missions in the region, but intimated that it had lost some in the Gulf waters in the past. It is also possible the captured drone belonged to a U.S. ally, as the UAE, Canada, and Australia also use the ScanEagle and are active in the Gulf.

Yasir (Wikimedia Commons) Yasir (Wikimedia Commons)

Later in the month, the IRGC claimed that it had previously captured two additional ScanEagles, although it offered no details to back that assertion. The IRGC moved quickly to reverse engineer the ScanEagle and claimed to have already launched a production line to indigenously manufacture ScanEagle knock-offs. Less than a year later, in September 2013, the Iranian Army Ground Force unveiled the Yasir, Iran’s domestic version of the ScanEagle. A high-ranking Russian military delegation attended the unveiling, indicating Iran may have shared its insights into the captured American technology with Russia. Iran referred to the Yasir as a combat drone and the Army Ground Force commander noted that, “One of the capabilities of Yasir is detection and targeting of remote targets."

The Iranian made several modifications to the ScanEagle’s design for the Yasir, such as “adding a twin-tailboom empennage and an inverted v-tail elerudder.” Iran claimed that the Yasir had a flight endurance of 8 hours and a range of 200 km. Within several months of its inauguration, the Yasir was reportedly spotted in use in the Syrian civil war. Iran is believed to have provided the Yasir to several of its proxy militias active in Syria and Iraq, including Katai’b Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and Katai’b Jund al-Imam. In January 2015, an IRGC Ground Forces commander remarked that Iran had modified the Yasir for use in suicide combat operations, although there is no indication that the Yasir has been used in this way to date.

Recent Drone Developments

It is often difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Iran’s combat UAVs, as Iran tends to exaggerate its capabilities for psychological effect. Regardless, the systems enumerated above illustrate the advances Iran has made in recent years in upgrading its ISR capabilities and developing lethal drones capable of suicide operations and air-to-ground strikes. While its claims to rival the U.S.’s capabilities are bluster, when it comes to the drone arena, “just enough” can often be excellent. Iran has demonstrated that its drones are more than adequate to fulfill its combat objectives and to tactically threaten the U.S. and its regional allies, necessitating increased investment in air-defense systems to counter the Iranian threat.

Reflecting the growing centrality of UCAVs in Iranian military doctrine, the IRGC has in recent years stood up a division within its ground forces dedicated to drones. In April 2020, the commander of the IRGC’s drone division, Akbar Karimloo, gave a detailed and candid interview with Tasnim News about Iran’s UCAV capabilities. In the interview, Karimloo stated his belief that, ”It is expected that the UAVs will be the best weapon and system in the future and in the service of the world's armed forces as well as the armed forces of our beloved country. With the least cost and loss, valuable information can be obtained from operational areas in the shortest possible time.” Karimloo noted that Iran’s advancing drone surveillance capabilities have greatly improved its intelligence gathering, providing superior images of topography and enemy positions to traditional satellites. Iran has used drones for surveillance along its own borders to monitor insurgent groups and further afield in the “resistance front,” conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria where Iran has sought to militarily entrench. Iran is increasingly seeking to employ integrated drone and missile attacks, with drones playing a role both in surveillance and target selection, as well as dropping ordinance themselves.

Another takeaway from the interview was that Iran is continuing to invest in training and communications technology in order to continue advancing its UCAV program. Iran is also constantly seeking to improve the range and lethality of its drones. It is no surprise, then, that Iran has continued to unveil a stream of new systems since 2019, although its recently announced drone systems have yet to be seen in action and therefore Iranian claims about their capabilities have not yet been independently verified.

In October 2016, the IRGC announced it had developed a drone primarily for maritime surveillance which could be laden with explosives and used as a “suicide drone.” The drone was pictured in an office environment atop a Persian carpet. There are no documented instances of the suicide drone in flight or in use operationally.

Kaman-12 (Wikimedia Commons) Kaman-12 (Wikimedia Commons)

In January 2019, Iran unveiled a new UAV called Kaman-12 (Expedient) ahead of celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and in March inaugurated a production line for manufacturing the new system. Iran claimed the drone is a combat drone with a flight endurance of ten hours, an operational range of 1000 km, and the ability to carry a 100 kg. payload. It is believed the Kaman-12 resemble Israel’s Heron UAV and will be primarily used for long-range surveillance missions. The Kaman-12 likely does not have air-to-ground strike capabilities, and its payload is believed to avionics and an EO camera rather than ordinance based on the lack of hardpoints on its wings.

In January 2019, Iran also unveiled the Khodkar (Automatic), a drone based on an outmoded design that was mocked and held up as evidence of Iran’s frequent dubious claims about its military technology capabilities. Iran claimed the Khodkar is its first wide-body UAV, capable of long-range surveillance and combat missions. According to Iran, the Khodkar is equipped with two cameras and antennas for U.S.- based GPS and Russian-based GLONASS satellite navigation. The design for the Khodkar is effectively an unmanned modification of a 1940s era Lockheed Martin T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer.

Khodkar (Mehr News) Khodkar (Mehr News)

The T-33, which has been out of production since 1959, is not a wide-body aircraft, casting doubt on Iran’s description of the Khodkar. Iran had acquired several dozen T-33s on the second-hand market during the Shah’s reign. The most significant modification to the Khodkar was the inclusion of a General Electric J55 turbojet engine, the same engine used in Northrop Grumman F-5 fighter jets. Iran has several operational F5s still in its arsenal from the Shah’s era, and it is likely that the Khodkar’s engine was transplanted from one of those. Unless Iran is able to domestically produce an engine, Iran will likely not be able to mass produce the Khodkar. Given the UAV’s bright orange paint job, it is more likely that if there are in fact more than one Khodkar in existence, the drone would be used for targeting exercises rather than surveillance or combat missions.

Kian (Tasnim News) Kian (Tasnim News)

In September 2019, the Iranian army’s air defense force unveiled a new jet-propelled drone called the Kian, which it claims is for ISR, combat and air defense missions. According to the air defense commander, there is a high-speed variant of the Kian useful for reconnaissance and air interception missions, and a variant with a longer flight endurance “designed to carry out bombings with pinpoint accuracy.” Iran claimed the Kian has an operational range of 1000 km., and the air defense force commander also remarked that the Kian can hit targets far from Iran’s borders; a veiled warning to Israel and other regional adversaries.

On April 26, 2020, the commander of the IRGC Ground Force’s Drone Division, Akbar Karimloo, announced that his unit would soon take delivery of a UCAV called Fotros from the defense ministry. This was a significant announcement tucked away in his interview with Tasnim News which, if true, will represent a major advancement for Iran’s UCAV capabilities. The Fotros was first unveiled – with much fanfare at the time – at a ceremony in Tehran in November 2013. Produced by HESA, the Fotros was said to be the largest UAV in Iran’s arsenal and to possess “special specifications that make it stand out from other drones.” Iran claimed the Fotros was capable of precision-firing Sadid-1 air-to-ground missiles using a laser designator, had a flight endurance of up to 30 hours, a flight ceiling of 25,000 feet, and an operational range of 2000 km., placing Israel within range from the Iranian homeland.

Fotros (Wikimedia Commons) Fotros (Wikimedia Commons)

It has not been possible to date to verify Iran’s claims, but many analysts have questioned them. When it initially unveiled the Fotros in 2013, Iran seemingly rushed to display a prototype to coincide with the start of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations in order to gain leverage. Notably, the Fotros Iran displayed was missing two screws in its fuselage. While Iranian media articles made sporadic mention of the Fotros as one of Iran’s primary long-range, long-endurance attack drones (along with the Shahed-129 and Mohajer-6), it was only ever witnessed in flight taking off and landing in a propaganda video and has not been observed in any combat operational theater. The Fotros was believed to be an abandoned project based on its long absence. If the April 2020 announcement that Iran will soon operationalize the Fotros comes to fruition, it would be a rare, albeit belated, instance of validation of Iran’s propaganda claims.