July 27, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Iranian drones could make Russia’s military more lethal in Ukraine

July 27, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Iranian drones could make Russia’s military more lethal in Ukraine

As Russia has prosecuted its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military has found itself wanting in several areas, notably including unmanned aerial vehicles. But according to the White House, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a plan to mitigate that shortcoming by obtaining “up to several hundred UAVs” from Iran.

While it may seem an unusual proposal, the Iranian drone industry is robust, its products tested on battlefields across the Middle East. These Iranian drones could both help the Russian military identify targets for its vast arsenal of artillery, as well as offer Russia additional means of attacking Ukrainian forces – potentially including Western-donated artillery.

The West should prepare Ukrainian forces by providing Kyiv with additional air defenses and electronic warfare systems. The alleged drone sale also underscores why Washington and its allies should push to reinstitute the now-lapsed UN arms embargo on Iran and sanction any individuals and entities involved in the UAV deal.

Since the end of the Cold War, Iran has looked to Russia to rebuild and upgrade its military after a calamitous war against neighboring Iraq in the 1980s. When it comes to drones, however, it’s a different story. The Islamic Republic began pouring resources into its drone program in the 1980s, while the Russian Federation largely neglected such capabilities and is now racing to catch up. Tehran has since emerged as a regional drone power, fielding dozens of different systems while proliferating drones and associated technology to proxy terror groups across the Middle East. Iran reportedly even opened a drone factory in Tajikistan in May.

Now, Iranian drone proliferation appears bound for Europe. US intelligence believes Tehran “is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs, on an expedited timeline,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced July 12. He said Iran would begin training “Russian forces to use these UAVs … as soon as early July,” although the White House on Tuesday said it has seen “no indications” that the drones had yet been delivered or purchased. While Tehran denies Sullivan’s accusation, an Iranian military official in 2019 claimed Moscow had expressed interest in purchasing Iranian drones, and last week Russian media reported another Iranian military official said Tehran is ready to export UAVs to “friendly countries.”

Back in June and then again on July 5, a Russian delegation reportedly visited Iran’s Kashan Airfield, which has served as Tehran’s key base for UAV training for various Middle Eastern terror groups. The Russian delegation examined the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), which have reportedly seen combat in Iraq and Syria.

While Russia has recently begun fielding its domestically produced Orion UCAV, it’s produced just a small number of systems, limiting its battlefield impact. The Shahed-191 and Shahed-129, both of which can carry Sadid precision-guided bombs, would provide Russia with additional capacity.

Russia could use these or other Iranian UCAVs to conduct close air support and air interdiction missions. While these drones would face threats from Ukrainian air defenses that have constrained Russia’s manned fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, their loss would be less costly. They could also help compensate for Russia’s shortage of precision-guided munitions dropped by manned aircraft, which undermines the Russian Air Force’s ability to conduct effective close air support and air interdiction. The Ukrainians reportedly fear Russia could use Iranian drones to target Ukrainian HIMARS rocket artillery batteries, which have wrought havoc on Russian ammo dumps, command posts, and other high-value targets in recent weeks.

Beyond UCAVs, Iran also has a variety of unarmed UAVs that could offer Russia greater capacity and — depending on the system provided — capability for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Drone ISR is essential for what Moscow calls “reconnaissance-fire and reconnaissance-strike contours,” or kill chains linking sensors, command, control and communication systems, and shooters.

Russian drone ISR, conspicuously lacking early in the war, has enhanced the Russian military’s effectiveness during the conflict’s second phase, during which Russian forces have made better use of their existing unmanned assets. Ukrainian forces reportedly say that after acquiring a target via UAV, Russian artillery typically takes just three to five minutes to bring accurate fire to bear, compared to about half an hour to deliver inaccurate fire when relying on other means of target acquisition.

As the UK defense ministry noted in May, however, “Russia is likely experiencing a shortage of appropriate reconnaissance UAVs for this task” — something Russian war correspondents and military bloggers have lamented. Russian forces have lost a significant number of ISR drones, particularly Orlan-10s, their workhorse system. Western sanctions restricting Russian imports of high-tech components may exacerbate this challenge by inhibiting Russia’s production capacity. Meanwhile, both sides have resorted to crowdfunding smaller drones used for short-range ISR.

Finally, Tehran has many single-use attack drones, like the Shahed-136, a delta-wing kamikaze drone that Iran used last summer to strike a tanker off the coast of Oman, killing two people. While Russia has employed its nascent arsenal of loitering munitions in Ukraine, limited capacity is likely an issue here as well. Iranian loitering munitions such as the Toofan and Raad-85, which linger above the battlefield before rapidly descending on targets, could provide Russian forces with additional lethality but will be expended quickly. Tehran also claims to possesses operational anti-radiation drones, designed to home in on the radar emissions of air defense systems. These models could help the Russian Air Force compensate for its weakness in suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses, in turn potentially reducing the threat to Russia’s manned aircraft.

Moreover, Russia could use Iranian drones such as the Qasef-1/2k and the Samad 2/3 — essentially propeller-driven cruise missiles — to strike targets such as infrastructure and ammo stockpiles behind the frontlines. While drones like these carry smaller warheads than traditional cruise missiles like Russia’s Kalibr, incidents such as the 2019 Iranian drone and cruise missile strike that shut down roughly half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production show their potential impact. In Ukraine, such systems could help Russia supplement its dwindling stocks of cruise missiles.

In consultation with Kyiv, Washington and its allies should consider ways to help Ukrainian forces counter these Iranian drones. For example, they should look at providing Ukraine with additional electronic warfare equipment. They could also bolster Ukraine’s short-range air defenses, whether by sourcing additional Soviet-made systems or providing Western-made systems like Avenger or M-SHORAD.

Beyond its immediate implications for Ukraine, Tehran’s potential drone transfer also underscores the need to reinstitute and enforce the UN arms embargo on Iran, which expired in 2020. This issue is particularly salient given that Tehran could ask Moscow to return the favor by selling Iran advanced weaponry such as the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Moscow previously declined to sell Tehran the S-400 but has left the door open to a future sale.

Washington could unilaterally “snap back” UN prohibitions against Iran — including the arms embargo — if it’s also willing to collapse the UN Security Council resolution enshrining the 2015 nuclear deal. Washington should also continue to spotlight this issue by sanctioning any individuals and entities involved in the drones’ potential sale, supply, or transfer to Russia, building on existing congressional and executive branch efforts to penalize Tehran’s drone program.

Iranian drones stand to aid Russia’s military in prosecuting Putin’s war of imperial aggression against Ukraine. Through military support married with diplomatic and economic pressure, the United States and its allies can both help Ukraine counter Iranian drones on the battlefield while addressing the widening radius of Iranian drone proliferation.

John Hardie is a research manager and senior analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst and Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute based in Washington, D.C. 

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