US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made a surprising announcement earlier this month: Russia is getting hundreds of drones from Iran and will begin training with them within weeks.
A major US adversary selling a swarm of drones to another may sound like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, but will the move give Russia the edge it needs to fundamentally change the course of its war in Ukraine?
Despite all the histrionics, the purchase of a drone could have as much to do with desperation as conspiracy. As fearful as the Pentagon and US officials are of countries like Russia, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and others working together, the nature of this deal seems much more like Iran’s opportunism and Russia’s desperation than the start of a grand alliance between Iran and Russia.
Russia’s domestic drone program is mediocre, the industry struggles to compensate for equipment losses and Israel, Russia’s traditional drone partner, is distancing itself from both sides in the conflict. Since US drone makers like Turkey are unlikely to sell drones to Russia, only Iran has the domestic drone industry, interest in proliferation and lack of concern about political backlash to make this move.
The transfer of hundreds of drones is worrying, but the types of drones that are shipped are important.
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Iran produces dozens of different types of drones, from tiny kamikaze drones to the large attack platforms most people imagine when they think of drone warfare. A 2019 survey of Iran’s military by the US Defense Intelligence Agency noted that drones are “Iran’s fastest advancing air capability” and that their drones can conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, fire ammunition or crash into a target and reach may cause an explosion. Most recently, they have shown that they can launch drones from surface ships, increasing their attack range.
Sullivan’s announcement gave some hints as to what kind of drones Iran could deliver. US officials claim Iran displayed the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 to a Russian delegation in June. Unlike Iran’s humble Kamikaze drones, which hit their target and explode, the 191 and 129 are capable of long-range reconnaissance (ISR) and firing ammunition, the latter resembling the infamous US MQ-1 Predator drone .
While a worst-case scenario for Ukraine would be Iran transferring their most capable drones en masse to Russia, it is more likely that Tehran would want to maintain their latest systems and send more replaceable platforms instead.
In particular, the US announcement mentioned that some drones were weapon-capable, such as Iran’s supplies to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have made extraordinary use of Iran-provided drones to attack military targets in Yemen, assassinate leaders at public events and attack Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. According to the UN, the main systems used by the Houthis are the Ababil and Samad families, both of which have ISR capabilities and kamikaze variants, but are not as capable as the Shahed-191 and 129, which can carry out ISR missions, carry ammunition firing and returning for reuse. If Iran is already producing these cheaper systems in large quantities to supply the Houthis, then it would not be difficult or risky for Tehran to sell many of them to Moscow, while also supplying a smaller number of 191s and 129s.
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The big question is whether Iran’s drones are an indicator that Russia is short of its own supply of drones. Artillery is key to Russia’s advance, and drones with long-range strikes would allow Russia to locate targets and correct artillery fire in real time. By some estimates, Russia has lost dozens of its own ISR drones, such as the Orlan-10. At the same time, the Iranian drones are no less impervious to Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems, raising the question of how much longer they will last than the Orlans ever deployed.