April 14, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Why did Iran choose drones as method of attack?

Iran has sought to turn drone threats into its version of the Soviet AK-47, a deadly weapon system used in copious amounts, exported to its proxies. An explainer.
April 14, 2024 | The Jerusalem Post

Why did Iran choose drones as method of attack?

Iran has sought to turn drone threats into its version of the Soviet AK-47, a deadly weapon system used in copious amounts, exported to its proxies. An explainer.

The decision by Iran to use drones to target Israel on April 13, lifts a curtain on a new era of drone warfare. Drones have been used for years by many countries. For instance, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to pioneer the use of drones in warfare back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The US used the Predator drone, first for surveillance in the 1990s and then for targeted strikes in the early 2000s. China became a drone superpower, primarily in the commercial field with sales of DJI drones. Now the Iranian drone era is here. It is an era of Iran’s drone wars and Israel is now an increasing target.

 The Iranian drone war has come to Israel is a surreal war. Reports over the last week and a half suggested Iran would want to strike at Israel to “punish” Israel for an airstrike that Iran blamed on Israel. The airstrike in question took place in Damascus on April 1 and killed an IRGC commander.

Iran has blamed Israel. Since that time there have been increasing reports that Iran would want to strike at Israel. Iran sent its foreign minister around the region, including to Damascus to drum up support. Iran’s top diplomat also called most of the Gulf countries and also spoke with his Iraqi counterpart. This is how Iran’s plan unfolded.

Over the last several days, reports indicated that Iran might resort to using drones. Iran also has ballistic missiles. It used those missiles to attack US forces in Iraq in 2020 in response to the killing of IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani. Iran also used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia in 2019. Iran recently used ballistic missiles in January to target Syria and Pakistan, claiming to target terrorists.

It appears Iran was testing the precision of the missiles. Iran has increased the precision of various types of its solid and liquid-filled missiles. These include the Fatah family of missiles, such as the Fatah 110s used to target Kurdish dissidents in Koya in northern Iraq in 2018.

Iran also has cruise missiles. It has used cruise missiles against Saudi Arabia in 2019. In addition the Iran-backed Houthis have used cruise missiles to target Israel over the last six months. However, it is not clear how large the arsenal of Iranian cruise missiles is.

Iran has chosen drones for its opening salvo to threaten Israel because drones have many qualities that appeal to the Iranian regime. The Iranian drones are not very large, only several meters long and two meters in width with a warhead of around 40kg. They are cheap and expendable. They can fly a route using waypoints and they can fly relatively low. They also have a long range. They are relatively slow, but slow is not always a bad thing for the Iranians. It is true that their slow pace means they can be detected, but they can also change direction, unlike a missile that flies on a trajectory.

Drones are relatively accurate and can be launched from a variety of platforms

Drones are also relatively accurate. Drones can also be launched from a variety of platforms. For instance drones can be launched from ships, or from trucks, they can also be launched from containers, of the sort used in maritime transport, or they can be towed and launched from a kind of catapult. This gives Iran many options to use the drones that it has developed over the years.

The Iranian attempt to use drones to target Israel is not new. It has used drones in the past and it has exported large numbers of drones to Russia. Russia has been using Iranian Shahed 136 drones to terrorize Ukraine over the last two years of war. Russia also prefers to use drones because they are cheap and expendable and strike terror into civilian areas.

Ukraine has had success downing the Iranian drones that Russia uses. This is a positive thing when it comes to analyzing the overall threat that drones can pose. However, Iranian drones struck the Saudi Arabian Abqaiq facility in 2019, harming energy exports from Saudi Arabia.

Russia’s experience with Iranian drones has definitely provided feedback to the Iranians in terms of improving the drones, perhaps improving their precision, maneuver and range. Using the drones is also a selling point for Iran.

Iran wants to make its Shahed 136 and other types of drones a best seller and do for drone warfare what the Soviets did for the AK-47. In essence, Iranian drones are its version of the AK-47, because this has become a uniquely Iranian type of weapon when used as a kamikaze weapon system.

We are now living in the Iranian drone war era. It is an era that has been coming like a slow train for many years. Iran increased its drone power while many countries watched and did not view this as a major threat. This is because Iran’s nuclear program, its militias and its missiles were seen as a greater threat.

However, the Iranian decision to export drone technology around the region and to use drones increasingly, it what has made this weapon particularly concerning. Many countries woke up to the threat when Iran exported drones to Russia.

For Israelis sitting home on the evening of April 13 it has been a surreal feeling, knowing that drones are on the way but that they can take many hours to arrive. This is a unique form of warfare, one where a large amount of warning can happen ahead of time.

However, that may give the appearance that it is less of a threat. That is not the case. Large swarms of drones are a major threat and Iran is pioneering this threat. 

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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