What Iran’s New Drone Aircraft Mean for Israel

Iran’s new unmanned aerial vehicles go a long way to strengthen its capabilities — and could be used against Israel.

A General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone aircraft
A General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone aircraft (US Army)

During televised press briefings on the 33rd anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War and with demonstration videos on hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran last week announced the production of three lines of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that could see deployment within the year. The drones, dubbed the Yaseer, the Ra’ad-85 and the Shahed-129, have apparently been designed to perform in both reconnaissance and combat roles and will allow Iran greater capacity to monitor and enforce activities at home and, potentially, across the region.

UAV technology has not, until now seemingly, been effectively deployed by Iran. Patrolling sovereign airspace and undertaking aerial strike missions, like those prosecuted during the Iran-Iraq War, has for years been the responsibility of Iran’s missile corps and, with aging planes like the F-14 Tomcat and the MiG-29, the air force’s manned fighter fleet.

New unmanned systems would, if feasible in their deployability, allow for a significant expansion of the country’s capacity to both gather intelligence and surgically project power at home and in its near abroad. After all, from the lightly built Yaseer to the heavy Shahed, each of Iran’s new drone systems will have advanced reconnaissance suites, including high resolution cameras and communications equipment, as well as the capacity to launch precision strike munitions.

The Shahed-129 was shown carrying two heavy tank busting bombs alongside a series of other smaller laser guided precision munitions. The commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps said the vehicle had “smart and precise” capabilities to rival Western made drones, including the ability to fire and guide smart missiles. The Guards touted flight time as 24 hours with a range of almost 1,700 kilometers.

Interestingly, the Ra’ad-85 seems to have been designed with a short lifespan in mind, an uncommon attribute even among relatively cheap drone platforms. Unlike its cousins, the Ra’ad’s combat ability is touted to be focused on intercepting and destroying hostile enemy units through direct kinetic, rather than projectile, means. After identifying a target, such as a helicopter or ground facility, the Ra’ad can be directed to ram its prey in a suicide strike, much like the German V-1 and V-2 winged rockets of the Second World War.

Many of the capabilities of Iran’s new drone series can apparently be attributed to the “successful reverse engineering” of captured and procured UAV technologies. This reference, made by the Guards’ Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, is a clear allusion to America’s Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel, a CIA stealth craft that went down over Iranian airspace in late 2011.

Iran claims it forced the spy plane to the ground. Numerous Western experts point out that, while it is nigh impossible to tell if Iranian forces electronically interfered with the craft’s onboard systems, the lack of damage on released images of the captures drone and the relative lack of sophistication of Iran’s cyber warfare units make it likely that the craft suffered a mechanical failure and crashed.

Regardless, it is certainly possible, though difficult to tell at this time, that the Guards or others were able to glean insights from the design and guts of the CIA plane.

Although new drones are unlikely to have a great impact on future confrontation with the United States, significant attention has been placed on what Iranian manufactured UAVs might mean for Israel. The transfer of any of these new drone platforms to militant groups like Hezbollah could signal a redistribution in capabilities when it comes to conflicts with insurgent forces in Gaza and the West Bank.

Several Israeli experts have, in the days since the announcement, gone on record to liken the Shahed-129 to the Hermes 900, a drone already in use with the Israeli military that has effectively been used in numerous reconnaissance and combat missions in recent years. It was noted that the plane did indeed appear to sport laser targeting equipment and missiles that, while appearing to be improperly stored under the wings, could theoretically be used to some effect in battle.

And so, while extreme doubts remain as to the effectiveness of the craft as a fully integrated unmanned system, there is little doubt that these planes will offer some degree of effectiveness under conditions in which poor integration and limited range don’t matter. Forward deployed Israeli units and civilian settlers may find themselves far more vulnerable in the future if Iran proves willing to extend the services of its fledgling drone force to the machinations of militant groups in the Levant.

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