Inside Iran's massive drone army

Iran's media: We have most combat drones in Middle East.

An Iranian Shahed 171 drone dropping a bomb as part of a military exercise in the Gulf, in Iran (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Iranian Shahed 171 drone dropping a bomb as part of a military exercise in the Gulf, in Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran has undergone a drone revolution and now possesses the largest fleet of combat drones in the Middle East, it’s media reported on Sunday. The exclusive report takes a deep look into Iran’s drone history and provides insight into Iran’s emerging use of drones as a strategic weapon, one that it would like to use more against Israel, the US and other enemies. In recent years, Iran has  attacked Saudi Arabia last year, harassed US ships and flown a drone into Israeli airspace in 2018.
Iran claims its drone fleet dates back to the era of the “revolution,” in includes technology from the pre-1979 Iranian air force. It mentioned the Beechcraft MQM-107 Streaker which was a target drone built in the 1970s by the US and which looks like a small plane mounted on a rocket engine. Iran built its HESA Karrar drone based on this in 2010. Why it took Iran decades to construct something based on a US model that was supposedly lying around is unclear. It is believed that the MQM-107 was sold to Iran in the 1970s. Iran also had BQM-74 Chukar target drones. It was also exported to Iran in the 1970s apparently.
Iran’s Fars News says that after the 1979 revolution the war with Iraq forced Iran to innovate in drone technology. Iran had acquired US F-4s and the surveillance model of the same aircraft the RF-4 but apparently it didn’t want to use them too frequently because they would be shot down. So the IRGC decided in 1983 to start using model airplanes from a civilian club that had a stock of them. The article says that a “Thunder [Raad] Battalion” was built within the IRGC for use of the drones. It is believed that these units were based in Ahwaz and included areas of Khuzestan province on the border with Iraq. It was here that Qasem Soleimani, later to be the IRGC Quds Force head, was involved in some of the bloodiest battles of the Iran-Iraq war, crossing the Shat-Al-Arab waterway to try to take Basra in Iraq. The drones may have been used in these battles, such as Karbala-5, a massive battle that took place in this area. Fars News only specifies that the battalion was stationed in the “fish farming canal” area, which was this area. The Mahi Canal was crossed in January 1986 during this costly battle.
The drones helped provide surveillance and could be flown without risking planes against the Iraqi Air Force. High-resolution images were provided and the article says the Raad Battalation was able to successfully integrate its Mohajer-1 drones. By the end of the war, 940 missions had been flown and 54,000 photos taken. Some 187,070 square kilometers had been covered, the article claims. That is a lot, it’s like half the land area of Iraq.
The article claims that these simple drones, the Mohajer family, were utilized until the Ababil drone family was developed. Two industries formed. The Quds company’s Mohajer, first flown in 1985, and the HESA Isfahan factory that built the Ababil in 1986. The Mohajer is seen being carried into battle and it would parachute back down for landing. It had twin-booms in the back, similar to Israeli models of drones being used the same year. The Israelis modelled their drones on existing aircraft.
 It’s not know where Iran got its design, but HESA, which makes the Ababil, had a factory that previously was used by the US company Textron which had experience building helicopters before the revolution in Iran. Textron also later would work on the Israeli-designed Pioneer drone in the 1980s. The origin of Quds aviation, which is linked to the IRGC, is less clear. Quds industries comes under the Aerospace Industries Organization, as does HESA.
Fars News says that in parallel to the drone development and industrial base, the IRGC Air Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Research Center, which helps build ballistic missiles, was also set to work researching better combat drones. This “led to the birth of the Shahed family of drones.”  The Shahed 121, for instance, flew over the USS Harry Truman in January 2016 and came near the French Aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle. The French sent a helicopter to monitor the drone. It apparently buzzed the French frigate FS Provence and the USS Bulkeley.
Iran calls the Shahed 121 a reconnaissance drone. It could fly for 10 hours with a speed of 180km/hr and a weight of 30 kg. Then, the Iranians built the Shahed 129, modelled on the US Predator drone and first flown in 2012. Iran says Sadid smart bombs can be put on their Shahed 129 and that it can fly up to 1,700 km. This would mean it can go further than a Predator. It can supposedly climb to 24,000 feet. Guided from satellites it might be able to carry 100 kg. of munitions, the Iranians say.
Iran also built the Shahed 171, or Simorgh drone, sometime after 2010, and the Shahed 191 which is also called the Saegeh-2. This was a “new chapter in the development of the IRGC Air Force drone capability,” Iran says. It was in 2011 that Iran downed a US RQ-170 Sentinel, known as the so-called “beast of Kandahar” because of sightings of it in Afghanistan. Iran reverse engineered the US spy drone and built its own models, which they claimed was based on the most advanced US technology. Iran brags about this copying of the US drone and says that its “Jihad Self Sufficiency” helped it make it even more modern. “It became a force.” The Shahed-191 incorporates electronic warfare, they say, and it is slightly smaller than the US model. The Iranians put a turbojet on it so it can reach speeds of 300 km/hr for 4.5 hours, with a range of 450 km. and a ceiling of 40,000 feet. It can only carry a 50 kg. payload though. Fars News says that’s enough for two Sadid smart bombs.
“The distinctive feature of this drone is its tactical nature.” It can be mounted on a vehicle and doesn’t need a runway. The vehicle, by driving fast, supposedly gives it enough lift to gain initial altitude, at which time the engine is switched on, sort of like in the US film Back to the Future. Iran says the Saegeh drone has a propeller instead of the turbojet and can carry four Sadid smart bombs. It is also launched from a vehicle.
 “All it requires is a flat surface for a car to drive on, even the streets of a city.” The article mentioned a “Shahed 178” model which has not been mentioned before, and says it is used for reconnaissance.
The article also references a Shahed 133, which Iran says was developed secretly with “no official information being released.” According to other foreign sources online, Iran actually tried to copy images of an Israeli Hermes 450. The Fars News report even gives a close up of how Iran armed what they call the Shahed 133. Supposedly it is also vehicle-launched.
“This is only one example of our country’s UAVs. The Shahed family have been developed by the IRGC Air Force.” It is the IRGC Aerospace head Amir ali Hajizadeh who is credited with unveiling this strategy. He has held the same position since 2009, so he was a key player behind building and reverse-engineering US drones and apparently seeking to model Iran’s drone arm on Israel’s own success in this sphere. Hajizadeh unveiled a military “strategy” behind the drones, the reports say. He has met with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and sold him on the drones as a strategic weapon. Four years ago the Iranian leader blessed this concept and urged him to increase the number of drones.
“The supreme leader’s advice on drones is important because it shows he has a deep understanding of the realities of combat,” the report says. Drones alone do not succeed on the battlefield, but incorporating combat drones as a form of “mass assault,” such as using fast attack boats, can “encircle the enemy at different angles.”
 Indeed it seems the drone arm, like the naval arm, is seeking this kind of swarm tactic. Iran used 25 drones and cruise missiles to strike at Saudi Arabia’s key oil facility in September 2019. It has used fast boats to harass the US. Iran’s drone strategy was formulated as recently as 2017 with the Bayt al-Maqdis operations that Iran conducted in the Persian Gulf. These “road to Jerusalem” drills used around 50 UAVs including the Shahed 129, Shahed 133, Shahed 191 and others.
The report says that the drones were used in a group and practiced air raids around Farur island, sometimes called Farvar island, near the Straits of Hormuz, off of Bandar-e-Divan. The concept of this drill was to bring together drones from Khuzestan, Fars, Bushehr and Hormozgan to show they could fly as far as 1,200 km. and strike the island. Iran measured the accuracy of the bombs used. Iran’s current Fars news article mentioned our own “Zionist newspaper” The Jerusalem Post’s coverage of the drill at the time as re-affirming its importance.
It’s a bit unclear therefore if the Iranians think the exercise met its demands or if they were simply happy to show off to foreign media. It was the first time so many drones participated. Iran says the low cost of production is a positive aspect of the drone warfare it is pioneering. Indeed, it has trafficked them and their components to allies, such as Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and Houthis in Yemen.
Iran has now used the drones to strike at ISIS in 2016 and also against Kurdish dissidents. “The timely release of the drones, as a brand and a symbol of the country’s industry, is something that is hoped to happen in the near future so the world becomes familiar with one of the lesser known dimensions of the deterrent power of the Islamic Republic.” In short, Iran is saying: We have so many drones that if you mess with us we will use them to target many things in the region.
The drone industry in Iran is one of the military industries often in the news for new deliveries to units. The sheer number of drones, increasing ranges and recent tests with various types of munitions, including the drones that are basically kamikaze weapons, or what is called a “loitering munition,” show that Iran intends to use these for massed attacks in the future.
Middle East commentator Elijah Magnier wrote over the weekend that tensions in the region could lead to a new “all-out war” in the region where “preparations are being made to confront Israel and end its continued violations of Syria’s sovereignty.” It appears that Iran is trying to roll as many drones off the line as possible in preparation for some kind of confrontation with the US, Israel or Saudi Arabia in the future.