first published, November, 2021
By Seth J. Frantzman
An October 20 attack on the Tanf garrison in Syria, where a few hundred US soldiers are based near the Iraqi and Jordanian border, has exposed Iran’s increasing use of drones throughout the Middle East. US officials blamed Iran for the attack that involved five drones.
The drone strike at Tanf is only one of many recent incidents involving Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the region. Iran’s military drone program has grown in recent years and Iran-backed groups have increasingly used drones in conflicts. This includes the Houthi rebels in Yemen using drones against Saudi Arabia, militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip using drones against Israel during the May conflict, and Iraqi-based Shia militias using drones. Iran’s increasing use of this technology, specifically kamikaze drones that fly into their targets and explode, is highlighted by Iranian media and the use of UAVs has become a point of pride for Tehran. What follows is an excerpt on Iranian drones from Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future by Seth J. Frantzman:
The battle in the skies over Iran was about possessing the latest intelligence capability. Much like U-2 flights over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the RQ-170 was supposed to be a gamechanger. It was supposed to be able to fly up to 50,000 feet and pack numerous sensors into its stealth body. It might be able to sniff for chemicals, a RAND Corporation analyst said. Sentinels had full-motion video (FMV), the latest technology being affixed to drones. This video, eventually combined with high-definition (HD), when combined with a map that shows where the drone is, can help analysts see potential suspicious activity quickly and combine all the metadata with other sensors. Moving from analog to digital and integrating it with forces on the ground so that everyone sees the same picture would change the way war is fought. Sentinel was a layer in that quiet revolution.
Iran wanted to grab hold of that revolution like a man riding a bull and take advantage of US advances. [General Amir Ali] Hajizadeh was leading those efforts from 2011 to 2020. He gained the personal blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. Khamenei believed in the Iranian drone program and in efforts to counter America’s drone army.
Having secured support from [Iranian] leaders[ship], Hajizadeh pushed Iran to down more US drones, eventually acquiring not only the Sentinel, but also the Predator, Reaper, ScanEagle5 and even an Israeli-made Hermes. Tehran had grabbed up to eight foreign drones over Iraq, Syria, and Iran by monitoring and even “controlling” them. In 2014, Iran showed off video it claimed it had taken from drones by hacking them. Iran showed off pieces of the Israeli Hermes on video. Iran boasted the Israelis were using the Hermes to spy on the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. That area is 1,000 miles from Israel. Experts told the Jerusalem Post that the wreckage Iran showed was not clearly a Hermes 180 or 450 and that such a mission to monitor Natanz was better suited to an Israeli Heron.
The Iranians watched Israel’s success closely. The Israeli Heron was one of the larger Israeli drones that had been its workhorse since the 1990s. It was one of the drones that had turned their defense companies into the leading drone sellers in the early 2000s. The Heron family became a mainstay as its endurance increased to over forty hours and its range to more than 1,000 kilometers. Iran watched as Israel replaced its Searcher IIs with the IAI Herons in 2005 and began operating them from Palmachim Airbase. [Israeli Air Force Commander] Amir Eshel received some of the first Herons for a squadron for the IAF in 2007. Later he would play a key role in Israel’s airstrikes on Iranian units in Syria.
In the drone wars, propaganda can be as important as actual advances. Everyone building drones seems to copy one another. For instance, Iran’s Saegeh was a direct copy of the Sentinel. Iran’s Shahed S-171 jet-powered Simorgh is also a copy of the Sentinel, first deployed in 2014. Hajizadeh pushed to arm the Saegeh with up to four missiles, claiming it could penetrate deep into enemy airspace0 It flew one from Syria’s T-4 base in February 2018. Israel shot it down as it came into the country’s airspace.
The battle for the skies in the wake of Iran’s downing of the Sentinel moved from a world that had one drone superpower to multiple drone makers. This fundamentally changed the equation and the threats that drones could pose. Iran’s goal was to create an independent drone army, much as Israel had done in the 1980s, providing Tehran with the impunity Washington had previously enjoyed. Under Hajizadeh’s guidance, Iran would bring down not only the stealth Sentinel but also the Global Hawk in 2019, and Iran would send drones to Yemen. The world was entering a drone war revolution of rapid change in just several years.
To get to the point of confronting the Israelis and America, Iran had been down a long and bloody road. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it had a number of US target drones sitting around, remnants of the Shah’s air force. These were basically large model airplanes with rockets on them. But Iran’s new leaders had no time to learn how to use them. On September 22, 1980, Iraqi warplanes struck Iran, and the Iran-Iraq War began. Iraq was a technical giant, with Soviet weapons and poison gas. Iran’s answer was religiously-motivated human wave attacks. But its new religious revolutionary guards were tinkering with drones. Soon they were carrying early models into battle. In 1986, Qasem Soleimani, the future [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force] leader, led his men across the canals that link Iran with Iraq’s Basra, where fish breed amid the waterways. Accompanying him were new Iranian drone warriors. Nine-hundred-forty missions were flown, and 54,000 photos taken.
Iran innovated. In the 1980s, it constructed the Quds Mohajer, first flown in 1985. Eventually, hundreds of the small planes, which could be carried by two men, would be built. The original HESA Ababil followed in 1986, with some 400 built. HESA, the company that built it, was actually founded in a former Textron factory that built Bell helicopters before the revolution. The Ababil was a loitering munition, more like a cruise missile, launched from a catapult on a truck. The Ababil-2 followed in the 1990s, and the Ababil-T twin-tailed version in the 2000s. This one was exported to Lebanon and Yemen.
Iran’s drone program borrowed heavily from 1980s designs, including Israel’s IAI Scout and later the Israel-designed AAI RQ-2 Pioneer that the US used. For instance, these twin-tail designs look like an Ababil-3 that was developed in 2006 and has a range of 100 kilometers and a speed of 200 kilometers per hour for four hours. Several hundred were built by 2019. Bizarrely, Israel’s help to South Africa to build its Denel Dynamics Seeker UAV may have been leaked to Iran so that Iran could develop its Ababil 3. In 2015, things came full circle when a [United Arab Emirates] operated Seeker II was shot down in Yemen by the Iranian- backed Houthis.
Iran may have also gained insight into Israeli drones through two Pioneers that were shot down in Iraq in the 1991 war, or a Hunter shot down during the Kosovo War in 1999. In recent years, Iran may have gotten access to Predator wreckage in 2015 when one was lost over Syria, or to a ScanEagle and Reaper shot in Yemen in November and June 2019, respectively. From outward appearances, Iran had no trouble relying on blueprints or photos, but its real problem was trying to build up the endurance of its drones and their abilities to conduct surveillance, to relay communications back, or to target enemies. For instance, the kind of composite materials, guidance, and electro-optics that hi-tech industries in the US and Israel had were not widely available to Iran under sanctions. In design, drones such as Seeker in South Africa, Mohajer 4B, or the Pioneer in the US, and Aerostar by Aeronautics all look basically the same, with long wings and a twin-tail and a bubble for electro-optics at the front. All Iran had to do was improve what was inside.
Iran was successful at turning its Ababils and Mohajers into advanced UAVs. In 2008, UN Peacekeepers inquired about drones they saw being used in Sudan. The government told them they were Zagils, an Iranian Ababil-3 that was renamed. Two were shot down by rebel groups. Venezuela also bought Iran’s Mohajer-2 in 2007 to use them for surveillance.
Iran built several generations of each of these drones from the 1980s to 2010. Around 600 were produced in total. They were all limited in their range by line-of-sight, up to a little over one hundred kilometers. In addition, their small fuel tanks limited their range. While the Ababil was used by the IRGC more extensively, the Mohajer was primarily used by the Iranian army, known as NEZAJA. In April 2020, Iran unveiled a wide array of new Ababil-3s for the air force and army, claiming that they had new guided-bomb capabilities. It also showed off a new cruise- missile-like Karrar drone. Tehran claimed they could fly 1,500 kilometers at speeds of 900 kilometers per hour and that its drones now reached heights of 45,000 feet. Iran copied an Israeli SPIKE missile that it then fastened to the Ababil-3 and dropped on a target, claiming it now had anti-tank weapons on its drones.
Iran built a wide variety of drones after 2010, with names like Yasir, the Hodhod, Roham, Ya Mahdi, Sarir, Raad 85, Haamaseh, and Hazem 1. Much of this was designed to experiment and show off a large inventory. Adam Rawnsley, an expert on Iran’s drones, said that Iran created models that didn’t go anywhere, boasting of just one or two prototypes. “What separates men from boys in drones is the network space and pushing imagery and data to people who need it.” Iran’s Colonel Akbar Karimloo noted in the spring of 2020 that the IRGC’s UAV command was rapidly increasing its communications abilities. He told Tasnim News that his drones were advancing in using video imaging, Geographic Information Systems, and increasing ranges beyond one hundred kilometers. He pointed to the Ababil-3, Mohajer-6, and Shahed 149 as examples of his latest models.
Iran’s goal after creating a drone force was to use them to harass its enemies. It had used them against Iraq in the 1980s. Now the great game would begin. Tehran sketched out an arc of countries where it wanted to project its influence. This would begin with the “near abroad” in Iraq and extend to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Gaza, and Afghanistan. The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman would receive overflights of Iranian drones. Could Tehran go toe-to-toe with the Americans on drone power? The US was overstretched. It sought to establish permanent combat air patrols all over the world by having drones in the air twenty-four hours a day, called “CAPS,” in some 240 locations. In the end, America only could manage about sixty of these surveillance combat air patrols, which is a problem because there are more than sixty small locations full of terrorists and enemies that need to be monitored.
To break the Americans, Iran established a network of drone bases along and south of the Strait of Hormuz. These would be located at a desert airstrip on Qeshm Island, near Bandar Abbas and the port of Bandar Jask, as well as at Minab and Konarak. At Konarak, Iran would base its new Shahed 129, modeled on the Predator. Ababil-3s would fly from Minab and Bandar Abbas beginning in 2010. A new airstrip would be built at Jakigur in 2015. By this time, Iran had a lot of experience moving its drones around. It had sent them to Syria and based them at a desert base called Tiyas, or T-4.
From here, it would launch a drone in February 2018 to test Israel’s defenses. The drone flew near the Golan and infiltrated near Beit Shean in the Jordan Valley, likely violating Jordan’s airspace. Israel scrambled an Apache helicopter and shot it down. In the course of retaliatory air strikes, an Israeli F-16I crashed in northern Israel. I was awoken by news of the crash on the morning of February 10 while staying in Kiryat Yam, a suburban working-class beach community north of Haifa. I drove out near Shefa’amr, where the F-16I had crashed in a field near a row of giant chicken coops. Walking up a dirt road, in the still cold and wet morning, I could see the wreckage and one of the burned engines sticking from a field turned black from the crash. This is what Iran’s drone war had wrought.
Iran had become increasingly brazen. On January 12, 2016, it sent a drone to fly over the USS Harry Truman and the French Charles de Gaulle. The message appeared to be that in the wake of the Iran Deal in 2015, Tehran felt it was winning in the Middle East. Kevin Stephens, a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet, said the UAV was not armed and posed no risk. It was “abnormal and unprofessional.” Iran had sent its new Shahed 129 to conduct the overflight, which illustrated that while the US saw this as merely unprofessional, Iran was testing the drone’s capabilities. Iran had conducted another overflight of the carrier in December 2015. The [country] also sent drones to fly over Afghanistan in 2017. They were spotted in Herat province. They then sent a Sadegh drone buzzing over the USS Nimitz in August 2017 in the Persian Gulf and said it flew over the USS Eisenhower in April 2019.
Iranian drone exercises followed, including a massive March 2019 drill at sea involving fifty drones that Iran dubbed the “way to Jerusalem” exercise. Iran downed a US Global Hawk in June. By July 2019, enemy drones were flying over the USS Boxer when the Americans began jamming them in the Strait of Hormuz. The problem facing the US, Israel, and other countries was that there was no easy defense against Iran’s drones. Washington had spent so long packing drones with technology to kill insurgents, they had ignored the importance of combatting states that have drones, or even how to deal with states that shoot back...
Today, the Iranian experience with drones has developed exponentially. With Iranian technology on drones in Gaza, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, the country is playing an ever-increasing role as an up-and-coming drone superpower in the region. There are limitations to Iran’s drone abilities though. Most of the drones being used against Saudi Arabia or US forces in Iraq and Syria are kamikaze drones. Like the Houthi Samad or the Sahab in Iraq, these drones are armed with explosives and flown with pre-programmed coordinates to hit a target. However, more sophisticated attacks like the one on Aramco’s Abqaiq in September 2019, which was conducted against an oil tanker off the coast of Oman in July, or Tanf in October have revealed new capabilities.
These Iranian capabilities have to do with precision, using numerous drones simultaneously, and, in the case of the attack on the tanker, having advanced means of knowing its location or monitoring it in real-time. Iran’s drone program and its influence throughout the Middle East is becoming more acute, and policymakers will need to take that into account as they look at defense postures and discussions with countries in the region affected by the drones.
Seth J. Frantzman is a senior analyst for The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (Gefen, 2019).
Reprinted with permission from Bombardier Books.