Is Iran’s new drone swarm Shahed-136 tech a gamechanger? - analysis

These types of drones fly directly into a target and self-destruct, and Iran seems to have acquired it.

 An explosion is seen at an Iranian missile and drone test at the 17th Great Prophet drill in Iran. (photo credit: Ali Yeghane Lari/Mehr News Agency)
An explosion is seen at an Iranian missile and drone test at the 17th Great Prophet drill in Iran.
(photo credit: Ali Yeghane Lari/Mehr News Agency)

Images of a new Iranian drone launcher have appeared online and in Iranian media over the past several days. The drones, dubbed Shahed-136, were combined with missiles in a drill that Iran says took place last week.

Iran fires long-range missiles during drills in warning to Israel (Credit: WANA via Reuters).

Iran has called these types of drones a “suicide drone,” or kamikaze drone. This means they fly into a target and self-destruct.

These types of drones have been mentioned before but have not been shown in such close-up detail.

In January, Tom O’Connor wrote in Newsweek: “Imagery seen by Newsweek and confirmed by an expert who follows Iranian activities in the region indicate the presence of Iranian Shahed-136 loitering munitions, also called ‘suicide drones,’ deployed to the northern Yemeni province of Al-Jawf, an area of the country controlled by the Ansar Allah, or Houthi, Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebel movement.”

This was the first time this type of drone was mentioned in overseas deployment. Prior to this, Iran had built kamikaze drones, but this specific type had not been seen in public military drills.

The Iranian Shahed 129 drone (credit: MILITARYEDGE.ORG)The Iranian Shahed 129 drone (credit: MILITARYEDGE.ORG)

Based on Tehran’s state-run and semi-official media, we now know the Shahed-136 exists and is not only a kamikaze drone but that Iran has created a new way to launch the drones in a kind of multiple-launch, or drone-swarming, format.

Drone swarms are a new technology whereby multiple drones are used to strike at targets. This can overwhelm air defenses and/or wreak havoc. In the past, drones such as the US Predator were not usually used alongside other drones.

In addition, drones have not often been used to enter contested airspace, such as the well-defended airspace of Israel or Saudi Arabia. This is because drone technology was mostly dominated by the US, Israel and several other countries up until recently. Iran, China and other drone powers have now entered the game.

Iran has invested heavily in kamikaze drone technology, including the types of drones known as Qasef in Yemen and Hamas’s Shehab. These are based on Iranian technology and models. Recent reports from the Alma Research Center have said Hezbollah may have some 2,000 drones – many based on Iranian models.

The new launcher that Iran unveiled in its recent drill appears to have five layers, or racks, on which drones can be fitted before launch. The launcher can be mounted on the back of a truck, so it could be disguised as freight and look like any other commercial truck plying the roads.

Pro-Iranian groups have done this before in Iraq, where they mounted 107-mm. or 122-mm. rockets on the back of trucks. In one documented case, they disguised the rockets under the bed of a normal commercial truck to fire them at a US facility in Iraq. In September 2020, Iran put rockets into a shipping container to hide them.

Iran’s new launcher for its Shahed-136 ostensibly gives it the ability to not only hide them but to put five drones in these types of converted trucks. It could conceivably launch dozens of these drones at a target in a kind of “swarm.”

Although there is no evidence the drones can communicate with each other or that they have the kind of advanced AI-swarming capability that exists in the West, it does not mean they do not pose a threat. A truck with a secret drone compartment can be used to strike at vulnerable targets or be used to probe air defenses.

Iran did this in 2019 in Saudi Arabia, using drones and cruise missiles to attack Abqaiq, a Saudi Aramco oil facility. Despite radar and air defense, the Saudis did not stop the drones.

Iran’s advances since then clearly pose a greater threat now throughout the region. The Shahed-136 is not a very large drone, according to the images, and it contains a warhead, making it a potentially dangerous weapon and possibly not easy to detect because of its size and small radar cross section.

Iran’s innovations with the Shahed-136 are not necessarily new. It has based the design of the drone on existing loitering munitions used by other countries. In addition, it is not the first nation to dream up the idea of a multiple drone-launcher system.

Azerbaijan released a music video in April 2018 that included a truck with a launcher on the back that had 12 doors for drones to fly out of. According to reports at the time, the video showed Harop drones, a loitering munition made by Israel Aerospace Industries. Azeri officials praised this drone in September 2020, and according to Israel Hayom in October 2020, a report from Armenia said a Harop had crashed in Iran.

“The Armenian Unified Infocenter reported the aircraft was an Israeli-manufactured IAI Harop kamikaze drone that crossed from Azerbaijan to Iranian territory and was shot down by Iranian forces, or crashed in Ardabil, not far from fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh Region,” the report said.

It is not known if Iran used that Harop as a model in 2020 and based its launcher on the Azeri system. The Iranian launch system is different in its positioning and method. However, the overall concept is the same. The concept is to give the forces the ability to launch several drones at the same time.

Newsweek reports this January said the Shahed-136 had a range of some 2,000 km. This is a long range for such a small drone, but it may be possible if Iran has made advances in its technology.

It appears unlikely it can achieve this range, but the reports appeared to coincide with claims that Iran had sent this drone to the Houthis in Yemen. A 2,000-km. radius around Yemen would mean the drone could reach Eilat in southern Israel or threaten shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

The threat of a drone swarm of the type Tehran has now showcased is rising. Iran has experimented with this before, but its new launcher and new drones appear to present a more serious threat than in 2019.

If Iran were to traffic these systems to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen with the types of multiple launchers it has built, this would put a new threat in play in any future conflict with Israel.