The White House said on Tuesday that Iran is to supply Russia with hundreds drones, some of them armed. Deliveries may already have started and training is set to take place as early as this month. Just what are these drones and what impact might they have on the conflict?
The announcement came from out of the left field, surprising even expert analysts like Sam Bendett who have maintained a close watch on Russian uncrewed systems – “Did not see this coming,” Bendett Tweeted.
Iran has a robust and varied drone ecosystem and has been a major user and supplier of drones for decades. This has largely been driven by sanctions: unable to import military aircraft or drones, and unable to build large combat jets, Iran has become a specialist in combat drones for a variety of purposes. Back in 2014, the WarIsBoring blog noted that ‘Like it or not, Iran is a drone power.’
Iran typically exports its drones to proxies like Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen who use them to attack targets in Israel and in Saudi Arabia respectively. But it also supplies them on a more commercial basis to customers in Venezuela and Ecuador as well as friendly states in Africa.
This thriving industry produces dozens of different types of drones, from large aircraft with a range of thousands of miles to hand-launched tactical models and loitering munitions carrying explosive warheads. This extensive catalog from Oryx includes over two hundred entries, although many are prototypes which have not entered production or are known from a description only. To understand exactly what the Russians are getting , we need to look closely at the exact wording from the White House.
“Our information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs [Uncrewed Aerial Vehicles], including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday.
Many commentators assumed from the numbers involved that these must be small surveillance drones or loitering munitions. However, there are a couple of problems with this theory.
One is that Russia already has plenty of small drones. The Orlan-10 (“Eagle”) is the workhorse of the Russian drone fleet. With a wingspan of ten metres and a flight time of up to sixteen hours with a piston engine which sounds like a motor scooter, it efficiently locates targets for Russian artillery and rockets and directs fire on to them – drone-directed fire typically strikes within three minutes, compared to the half hour taken by other methods. While Russia has lost at least 70 Orlans so far, there may be as many as two thousand in service and getting more is unlikely to be an urgent need.
The term ‘weapons-capable UAV’ is also an indication. The White House knows the term ‘loitering munition’ for drones fitted with warheads for kamikaze-style attacks, like the U.S. Switchblades supplied to Ukraine, and did not use it in the statement. ‘Weapons-capable UAV’ is used for larger drones which can carry bombs, missiles or rockets. In addition, Russia has no shortage of Kalibr ballistic missiles, which it continues to use to hit civilian targets in Ukraine, and so has little need for the sort of loitering munition Iran produces which are also intended for static targets.
Russia is however desperately short of armed drones equivalent to Ukraine’s successful fleet of Bayraktar TB2s. The nearest it has it is the Orion-E; a video was released back in March of one carrying out a strike on a ‘military facility’ (in other words, a building) in Ukraine but since then it seems to have been missing in action. It is unclear how many Orion-E are actually in service or operational.
Iran has several types of battle-proven drones capable of launching missiles, such as the Mohajer-6 exported to Ethiopia and the Shahed-129 fielded successfully in Syria and Iraq.
The Shahed-129 has a wingspan of fifty feet and an Austrian-designed Rotax 914 engine (as used in the U.S. Predator) giving it a cruising speed of about 100 mph and a flight time of over 20 hours. The 129 carries four Sadid-345 smart bombs with precision guidance (laser, infrared or optical) capable of hitting moving targets.
This type of drone could be high on Moscow’s shopping list because of its potential for long-range missions to find and destroy the U.S.-supplied HiMAR
The Russian air force is only flying a limited number of sorties and has so far proved incapable of hitting such targets, possibly due to a severe shortage of guided weapons. This may be behind a fiasco this week when two Russian Su-27s attempted to bomb targets on Snake Island and missed not only their targets but the island itself. The Russians have also lost at least 34 combat aircraft from what appears to be a small operational fleet and seem reluctant to risk them further.
Drones carrying out missions over Ukrainian lines would be exposed to air defenses and likely suffer high losses. But drones are relatively cheap and expendable as crewed aircraft are not, and the high-value targets would make the risks worthwhile.
Iran may even supply Russia with stealth drones, having developed a whole series of uncrewed vehicles copied from a stealthy U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel which crashed in Iran in 2011. These are known as the Simorgh class and share a distinctive flying-wing shape. Two of these, the Shahed-181 and -191 were shown off during the ‘Great Prophet 14’ exercise in 2020; the 191 can carry two Sadid-345 and the larger 181 can carry four. In theory they harder for air defenses to detect, but Israel appears do have shot down several Iranian drones of this type without obvious difficulty, so the reverse-engineered stealth may not be very effective.
Such drones are produced in tens rather than hundreds through, leading to the question of what the others will be that make up the numbers. One possibility is that Iran could supply newly-developed Mass Flight swarming drones. These might act as decoys, gain intelligence and confuse and overwhelm Ukrainian defenses while the larger armed drones go about their work.
It is not clear how much U.S. intelligence knows about the deal, whether Iran will be able to deliver what it has promised, or whether Russian forces will be able to effectively use anything which is delivered. Their track record so far in this war has been poor. Resorting to Iranian drones suggests a certain desperation on the part of Russia, but it also underlines just how important uncrewed systems are in modern warfare. Expect to see a major counter-drone effort from Ukraine when the Iranian hardware arrives.