The Iranian Drone Threat

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Iran’s Malign Drone Usage

As Iran’s drone attack capabilities have grown in recent years, Iran has become increasingly assertive in undertaking malign drone activities in the context of its hegemonic campaign for regional influence. In recent years, Iran has used its drones on numerous occasions to harass the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. It has also used the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as testing grounds for its drone technology, conducting ISR and strike missions to protect the Assad regime, further its interests in Iraq, and in the fight against ISIS. As it has sought to militarily entrench in Syria, Iran has also established drone storage and command outposts, bringing its combat UAVs in closer proximity to Israel.

Iranian Drone Use in Iraq and Syria

Iran has used the conflicts in Iraq and Syria to cultivate military, political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence in these countries as part of its hegemonic efforts to export the Islamic Revolution. Iran has sought to entrench a military presence in both countries to give it further bases of operations, away from the Iranian homeland, for it to confront Israel and U.S. and coalition forces. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have provided Iran an ideal staging ground to test the UCAV advances it has made over the past decade. Iran has used drones in these conflicts for surveillance and attacks as part of its efforts to preserve the Assad regime, to confront ISIS, and to establish military influence and an entrenched military presence.

Iraq

Iranian drone activity in Iraq has been occurring for years. For instance, in 2000, Iraq announced its air defenses shot down an Iranian drone near the Iran-Iraq border. Another incident occurred in February 2009 when an Ababil-3 crossed from Iran into Iraqi airspace and penetrated 10 km. before being shot down by U.S. forces. Under the status of forces agreement in place between the Iraqi government and the U.S. at the time, the U.S. was fully responsible for defending Iraq’s airspace. Iraqi officials claimed the incident was probably inadvertent, but the U.S. alleged that it was likely an instance of Iranian interference in Iraq, citing the fact that the drone remained in Iraqi airspace for over an hour before the U.S. engaged it. At the time, the Ababil-3 had not yet been armed, so the drone was almost certainly on an ISR rather than attack mission. Iran may have been seeking to spy on the U.S. military presence in Iraq, scouting out weapons smuggling routes, or conducting surveillance on Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf, a former refuge for the Muhajedin e-Khalq organization which was in the vicinity of the engagement.

The rise of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 paved the way for Iran to establish consistent drone operations in Iraq and to provide UAVs to some of the Iraqi Shia militias it backed. Iran’s drones served an important psychological dimension, showing that Iran had sophisticated military technology at its disposal and was willing and able to use it freely to back its allies in Iraq. Iran’s drones thus enhanced its prestige in Iraq, serving to bolster its political and military influence.

The rapid fall of Mosul with little resistance from Iraqi government forces in June 2014 created an opening for Iran to take on a more active military role in Iraq. Former IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, acting in conjunction with the Iraqi government, helped stand up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of predominantly Shia militia groups – many backed by or fully subservient to Iran – that coordinated with Iraq’s central government in the fight against ISIS.

The rise of ISIS created a brief de facto tactical alliance of convenience between the U.S. and Iran against the shared foe. Soleimani exploited the state of affairs to ramp up exports of military hardware to Iran-backed forces, flying two transport planes a day to Baghdad each carrying 70 tons of equipment. Iran was also able to take steps toward entrenching a military presence in Iraq, setting up a special control center at Baghdad’s Rasheed air base, which had previously been in American hands. The IRGC also dispatched a contingent to Iraqi Kurdistan to assist Kurdish peshmerga forces in their fight against ISIS, mainly in an advisory capacity. The Obama administration viewed Iran’s machinations in Iraq warily, but was ultimately permissive of them.

At the Rasheed air base, Iran set up a signals intelligence unit to monitor ISIS’s electronic communications and began directing drone surveillance operations to monitor ISIS’s physical presence on the ground. Initially, the New York Times reported that Iran was operating Ababil ISR UAVs, most likely the Ababil-3, for its drone surveillance. Based on several instances of downings of Iranian drones over ISIS-held territory, it appears that Iran began using Mohajer-4 ISR drones for surveillance missions as well. Iran is often deliberately opaque when it comes to revealing the extent of its combat involvement in Iraq and Syria, and the IRGC has in the past claimed to be present only in an advisory role. The drone downing incidents offer some of the most concrete evidence of Iran’s frequent drone operations in Iraq and Syria. They also highlight the communications issues Iran has had with maintaining contact with its drones in combat settings beyond short ranges, a situation exacerbated by Iran’s lack of access to satellite networks.

In July 2014, a Mohajer-4 drone allegedly crashed and was recovered by ISIS near Samarra north of Baghdad. ISIS photos of the incident depicted the downed UAV, which was indisputably Iranian in origin, carrying several Iraqi flag decals, which raised questions over who owned and operated the drone. Analysts theorized the decals could have been photoshopped by ISIS, could have been placed on by Iran to obfuscate the extent of their involvement in Iraq, or less plausibly, that Iran may have supplied UAVs to the Iraqi government, who had previously sought to acquire such technology from the U.S.

In November 2014, pictures emerged of a downed Mohajer-4 in the town of Jalawla, Diyala Province and another in the Hamrin Mountains, where the IRGC and ISIS had been clashing. Qassem Soleimani was reportedly in Diyala Province at the time, which is on Iraq’s eastern border, coordinating the battlefield activities of Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’a militia forces along with Hadi al-Amiri, commander of the Iran-backed Badr Brigade. Shortly thereafter, the Soleimani-led forces reclaimed Jalawla and the neighboring town of Saadiya. In mid-December, photos emerged showing that Kurdish peshmerga had taken back custody from ISIS of the Mohajer that crashed in Jalawla the previous month. Another Mohajer-4 crashed in Kirkuk and was displayed by ISIS in January 2015. Analysts were able to tell it was a Mohajer-4 based on the prefix of the serial number on the downed UAV.

In February 2015, ISIS showed pictures of a crashed Ababil-3 it recovered which it claimed to have shot down near Samarra. Similar to the Mohajer-4 that previously crashed near Samarra, the downed Ababil-3 was also purported to have Iraqi flag decals affixed. The incident marked the first confirmation that Iranian-origin Ababil-3s were indeed present and operational in Iraq.

Reports of Iranian drone operations in Iraq subsided after the pacification of the ISIS threat. However, in September 2018 and July 2019, Iraq was the staging ground for significant integrated drone and missile attacks launched from Iranian territory targeting an Iranian Kurdish dissident movement headquartered in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In September 2018, Iran fired a salvo of seven short-range Fateh-110 ballistic missiles at the Iraqi Kurdistan base of an Iranian Kurdish separatist movement, killing at least 11. The IRGC used unidentified drones to film the attack and assess the damage. According to the IRGC Ground Force’s Drone Division commander, Akbar Karimloo, drone surveillance also played an integral role in target acquisition for the missile attack. Karimloo told Tasnim, “The only documents we had in the operation against the KDP were via UAVs. That is, the field commanders who commanded the missile operation guided the operation using the drone. More importantly, we did combat work and dropped bombs and hit pre-determined targets. … In that operation, we were able to show the world the power of missile operations using UAVs, and it was this special power of UAVs that was seen.”

The Iranian drone and missile attack was followed by sporadic clashes between the IRGC and Kurdish militants. The situation came to a head in July 2019, when the IRGC carried out an operation in retaliation for an ambush on an IRGC military vehicle suspected by Iran to have been carried out by Kurdish militants that killed three Revolutionary Guardsmen in Iran’s West Azerbaijan province several days prior. The IRGC Ground Force, including the Drone Division, carried out the attack on “active headquarters, shelter, and training” locations of “anti-revolutionary” Kurdish militants on the Iraqi side of the border, according to Tasnim. In a statement, the IRGC claimed to have killed or wounded a large number of Kurdish militants in its operation.

The Iranian reprisal was reported to consist of artillery, missile, and UAV attacks. According to Tasnim, the IRGC used Mohajer-6 ISTAR UCAVs equipped with Qa’em precision-guided missiles in its attacks. Iranian media released a video purporting to show highlights of the Iranian operation which displayed a Mohajer-6 in flight and air-to-surface missiles hitting targets. According to IRGC Drone Force Commander Akbar Karimloo, the Mohajer-6 was used for both target acquisition for the missiles used in the attack, and the drones themselves conducted strikes using their own cargoes.

Syria

Iranian support for the Assad regime in the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, was initially limited to advising and training Assad regime forces. Iranian support to the Syrian regime increased markedly in 2012 as Assad risked losing power due to rebel advances and force attrition. Iran began sending hundreds of IRGC fighters to Damascus, stanching and eventually reversing Assad’s losses. Iran also began injecting vast quantities of military equipment into the conflict, despite being subject at the time to two separate U.N. arms embargoes, UNSCR 1737 and UNSCR 1747, that prohibited states from supplying or taking delivery of Iranian arms and weapon systems, including UAVs. Iranian UAVs have played an important role in helping the Assad regime to stay in power, providing support in the form of surveillance, targeting, and eventually, air strikes to augment Syria’s conventional air power, which has suffered significant attrition during the conflict.

As Iranian arms increasingly flooded Syria in spite of the export ban, Iranian UAVs became a frequent presence in the skies starting in February 2012. It is usually not fully clear whether Syrian government, Hezbollah forces, or the IRGC itself are operating the UAVS, but at the least, Iranian supervision of its drones’ flights can typically be assumed. Until 2015, the Iranian drones exclusively carried out ISR and targeting missions, helping pro-Syrian government forces monitor rebel positions and relaying intel that would then be used for artillery strikes. Syrian rebels came to know that if they spotted a drone, rocket attacks were usually imminent. As of late 2015, Iranian drones have been used for attack functions as well.

The first reported Iranian drone sightings by anti-government forces occurred in February 2012. That month, an unidentified observer filmed  a UAV, later identified as a Mohajer-4, flying over the rebel-held city of Kafr Batna, a suburb on the eastern outskirts of Damascus. Later that month, rebels observed an Ababil-3 light tactical ISR drone over Homs. In one infamous incident, Iranian-made drones were used to target a makeshift media center used by Syrian opposition activists in Homs. An American journalist, Marie Colvin, and a French photojournalist, Remi Ochlik, were killed by rocket fire that hit the media center. According to a photographer embedded with Colvin, a veteran who served in British Royal Artillery for six years and who was himself injured in the attack, on the morning of February 22, 2012, pro-Syrian forces began shelling the area around the media center. Within an hour, the photographer heard a targeting drone overhead. Once the drone appeared, Kaytusha rocket fire began closing in on the media center, culminating in four direct hits. According to the photographer, the pro-Syrian forces used a bracketing technique, assisted by the targeting drone, to zero in on the media center. The photographer further noted he witnessed drones hovering over Homs 95% of the daylight hours during the fortnight he was embedded there.

Drone overflights by Mohajer-4s and Ababil-3s became increasingly routine – UAV expert Galen Wright accounted for over 50 Ababil-3 sightings between February 2012 – January 2014, including several crashes. The drone sightings were primarily concentrated in the suburbs around Damascus, which were hotbeds of insurgent activity. The Ababil-3 was particularly suited for Syria’s urban combat zones, as it is capable of being launched from a simple metal stand perched on a truck or the ground.

In November 2013, pro-Assad forces began using Yasir UAVs for surveillance and targeting as well. Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, claimed to have shot down a Yasir in December 2013 over Aleppo.

In April 2014, Free Syrian Army forces observed a drone that appeared to be a Shahed-129 flying over the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta. The drone was unarmed, which means it may have been a Shahed-123, a smaller unarmed variant of the Shahed-129 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) combat, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (CISR) UCAV. Turkey shot down a Shahed-123 in a May 2015 border incident, claiming the drone crossed into its airspace, affirming that pro-Assad forces have used the Shahed-123 during the civil war.

As noted above, Iran has struggled, due to procurement and research and development issues, to fulfill the Shahed-129’s potential as a combat drone capable of carrying out air-to-ground strikes. But in February 2016, Iran released footage purported to be, and later confirmed, of a Shahed-129 precision-striking rebel targets in Aleppo, confirming the drone’s presence in Syria. Iran’s use of Shahed-129s in Syria have been limited by the fact that the UCAV requires a runway for takeoff and landing, and it is believed that Iran operated its Shahed-129s in Syria from the Hama air base and T4 air base in Homs governorate. In the broadcast footage, the Shahed-129 was shown providing air support to IRGC-backed militias fighting on the ground by dropping Sadid missiles on a group of rebel fighters and hitting a building in the village of Hasalah. The strikes, believed to have been carried out in October 2015, were the first known wartime drone strikes undertaken by Iran. Iran thus joined an elite group of nations with demonstrated capability of utilizing attack drones.

As operations in Syria increasingly shifted toward the battle against ISIS, Iran would use its Shahed-129s on two known occasions in June 2017 to menace U.S. forces conducting counter-ISIS operations from the al-Tanf airbase. Although the U.S. and coalition fighters had a shared foe with Iran and pro-Assad forces, the U.S. presence at al-Tanf was a source of friction, as it constrained Iran-backed militias’ arms smuggling efforts in the vicinity as part of Iran’s efforts to establish a land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. The U.S. declared a deconfliction buffer zone around the base to prevent hostilities from occurring between Iran-backed and pro-Assad forces and the U.S.-led coalition.

On June 8, 2017, a Shahed-129 dropped a single munition on U.S.-led coalition-backed Syrian fighters conducting counter-ISIS operations outside the deconfliction zone. The fighters were accompanied by coalition advisors at the time. The drone strike, which marked the first time U.S. forces had come under aerial attack since the Vietnam War, missed its target and “hit dirt,” according to a U.S. spokesman for the coalition. The drone was reportedly still armed when an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet shot it down. The incident occurred a day after Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV broadcast footage of a Shahed-129 chasing a U.S. Predator drone it had in its sights in the skies over Al-Tanf, with a narrator warning, “we could shoot you down anytime, but we take pity on you.” The threat was an empty one, as the Shahed-129 does not have air-to-air missile capabilities.

Twelve days later, an F15-E struck down yet another Shahed-129 that advanced on coalition-backed Syrian fighters accompanied by U.S. advisors at an outpost outside Al-Tanf. According to a Pentagon spokesman, the UCAV was armed with ordnance, but was intercepted by the U.S. fighter jet before it could conduct a strike. The June 2017 UAV confrontations threatened to draw the U.S. into wider hostilities with Iran-backed and pro-Assad forces, but the situation calmed down as the U.S. did not undertake any reprisals beyond downing the two drones and emphasized its mission was limited to counter-ISIS operations, although it would not hesitate to take appropriate actions to respond to hostilities against its forces.

In the latter years of the Syrian Civil War, Iran has focused heavily on entrenching itself militarily in Syria. Iran seeks to leverage Syria’s proximity to Israel to use the country as a forward operating base from which it can constantly threaten and attack Israel. One prominent node for Iranian entrenchment is the T4 airbase, where Iran has sought to establish “a large air force compound under its exclusive control,” according to Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel. Iran shares the large base with Russian and Syrian forces, but operates independently of them, controlling T4’s western and northern sides. The IRGC’s drone division has deployed a unit to T4, where they reportedly oversee UAV surveillance and attack operations, and research and development activities. Many of Iran’s drones operational in Syria are housed at the base.

In the early morning hours of February 10, 2018, Iran engaged in a rare direct confrontation with Israel, sending a Saeqeh drone – Iran’s reverse engineered version of the Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel – from the T4 airbase into Israeli airspace. The Saeqeh was reportedly launched by the IRGC unit deployed at T4. It flew for approximately 20 minutes, cut through Jordanian air space, and entered Israeli airspace, where it was intercepted within 90 seconds by an Apache attack helicopter north of Beit She’an. Video footage of the interception can be seen here. According to the Israeli Air Force Chief of Staff, Israel permitted the drone to encroach its airspace so the IAF could shoot it down. The incident marked the first known indication that Iranian Saeqehs were present in Syria, and was the first known usage of Saeqehs in a combat scenario.

Israel immediately retaliated for the incursion, scrambling F-16I and F-15I fighter jets for an attack on several Iranian targets in Syria, including the T4 airbase. Israeli airstrikes temporarily knocked the base out of commission, and were reported to have demolished T4’s “control tower, the mobile control station for UAVs, several UAVs and a number of support buildings.” The Israeli fighter jets came under significant Syrian anti-aircraft missile fire, leading to the downing of an F-16I. The successful downing was likely a result of pilot error as the plane remained at a high altitude to confirm target destruction after striking the T4 command trailer, allowing Syrian radar to track it. Even so, the Syrian missiles did not make a direct hit, and the pilots were able to eject when they crossed back into Israeli airspace, seriously injuring one and lightly injuring the other. Israel responded in turn by launching precision air strikes against Syrian anti-aircraft batteries, reportedly taking out half of Syria’s air defenses.

In April 2018, the IDF released a report of the incident, in which they claimed that “the UAV was identified and tracked by Israeli defense systems until its destruction, effectively eliminating any threat the Iranian aircraft posed while flying towards Israeli territory.” The IDF alleged that the Saeqeh UCAV was “armed with explosives and was tasked to attack Israeli territory,” which they concluded by “analyzing the flight path and an operational and intelligence-based investigation of the remains.” Israel’s intelligence capabilities and small land mass give it inherent advantages when it comes to counter-drone defense, but even with technological advances, Israel has not achieved hermetic air defense. Even unsuccessful drone incursions like the February 2018 incident allow Iran to probe for vulnerabilities in Israel’s air defenses and provide intel which they can use to adapt and continue to find new ways to threaten Israel.

In October 2018, Iran launched a salvo of at least six Zolfaghar and Qiam-1 ballistic missiles at ISIS militants operating near the eastern Syrian city of Boukamal. Iran followed up the missile attack with bombing runs by seven armed Saeqeh drones dropping what appeared to be Sadid-345 miniature precision-guided missiles. Analysts believed at the time based on existing photos of the Saeqeh that it did not have a sensor turret, which would negate the missiles’ precision-guided capabilities. The Associated Press additionally reported that “State TV aired footage of a drone dropping what appeared to be an unguided munition.” Iran released video footage purportedly of the attack which showed a Saeqeh UCAV dropping munitions from an internal bomb bay, which indicates it likely used Saeqeh-2s in the attack. The Saeqeh-2 was first publicly revealed in January 2019, which may have been behind the confusion. According to Jeremy Binnie of Jane’s Defence Weekly, the Saeqeh-2 “had a relatively small and seemingly non-retractable electro-optical system under its nose that might be capable of designating targets for laser-guided weapons.” It is therefore possible, although not certain, that the October 2018 drone strikes were in fact a precision attack.

Iran proclaimed the attacks to be retaliation for a September terrorist attack at an IRGC parade in Ahvaz province, which was claimed by ISIS. The integrated drone and missile attacks came within a month of the drone and missile attack referenced in the previous section on the headquarters of an Iranian Kurdish dissident movement in Iraq. The attack reportedly took place within three miles of U.S. counter-ISIS forces, according to a Pentagon official.

The missiles used were launched from Iranian territory near Kermanshah and crossed over Iraq before hitting their targets; it is unclear whether the drones were launched from the same site. Kermanshah is roughly 570 km. from Boukamal, which is outside the Saeqeh’s reported 450 km. range. Iran is heavily reliant on line-of-sight control links to communicate with its UAVs, which limits the range of its UAVs, especially over hilly terrain. It is possible, however, that Iran preprogrammed the attack coordinates which would extend the range of its UCAV, or that Iran launched the drones from a closer point within Syria or Iraq. Iran did not follow deconfliction protocol ahead of the attack, endangering civil and military air traffic over the Iraqi airspace that the missiles and possibly drones passed through.

Iran staged the attack largely for propaganda purposes. The proximity of the attack to U.S. forces was designed to send a message that Iran is capable of carrying out similar attacks against the U.S. as well. In Iran’s conspiratorial state ideology, the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia created and back ISIS. Iranian state television was present at the launch, and a reporter declared as the missiles were launched, “This is the roaring of missiles belonging to the Revolutionary Guard of the Islamic Revolution. In a few minutes, the world of arrogance — especially America, the (Israeli) Zionist regime and the Al Saud — will hear the sound of Iran’s repeated blows.” Iranian state television also aired footage showing that one of the missiles was emblazoned with the slogan, “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Al Saud,” casting further light on who the missiles intended targeted audience was.

Iran claimed in October 2018 it has undertaken hundreds of sorties and drone strikes against ISIS militants in Syria, the majority of which are likely to have been carried out with Shahed-129s. According to IRGC Aerospace Force Commander Brig. Gen. Ali Hajizadeh, Iran’s UCAVs “were used in eliminating tanks, personnel carriers, cars used for suicide attacks and 23-millimeter cannons. We significantly turned the tide of battle.” The statement by Hajizadeh marked the first time Iran had acknowledged offensive operations in Syria.

In August 2019, Israeli aircraft preemptively struck IRGC-Quds Force and Iran-backed Shi’a militia targets near Damascus, claiming they were preparing to launch explosives-laden “killer drones” into Israel’s north. The Syrian army claimed that it destroyed the majority of the missiles dropped before they could hit their targets, but an IDF spokesman claimed the impact of Israel’s operation was “significant.” According to the Associated Press, the drones in question were loitering munitions, disposable drones meant to carry out suicide missions. Iran’s reversion to more primitive drones to try and attack Israel may be indicative of lessons learned from the February 2018 drone incursion. For one, it eliminated the risk of losing costlier, more advanced UCAVs in the likely event of an Israeli interception. More rudimentary drones can be more effective at evading radar. Although such drones carry less ordinance and cannot cause comparable damage to a Saeqeh or Shahed-129, a successful attack would still have a demoralizing psychological impact.

Iran’s record of malign drone conduct demonstrates that the Syrian theater has been integral to Iran’s efforts to advance its UCAV program, and that UCAVs play a large role in Iran’s efforts to bolster its military influence and entrench a permanent military presence in Syria. As Iran has entrenched, it has used Syria (and similarly, Iraq) as a weapons transshipment hub, establishing supply lines to provide drones, precision-bombs, and other advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shia militias. Its use of Syria as a staging ground for UCAV attacks against Israel and the U.S. illustrate the extent to which Iran has a free hand to operate in Syria, as Assad has allowed Iran to undertake such operations even though they put his own forces at risk. The Israeli shoot-down of an armed Saeqeh in February 2018 showed that Israeli intelligence has full situational awareness at all times of the Iranian drone threat emanating from Syria. Israel has shown on numerous occasions that it is willing to strike Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq to stanch the Iranian proliferation threat and rein in the arms supply network Iran is building in the region.