Iran's Defense Ministry unveiled a mass of new drones [unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs] over the weekend for the Islamic Republic's army and air force. According to Tehran the drones have new capabilities, and can fly more than 1,000 km, which means they could reach Israel from Iran.
Iran has been producing drones since the 1980s and is an innovator in drone warfare. It used 25 drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia last September, and has flown drones into Israeli airspace.
Iran's Defense Minister Brig.-Gen. Amir Hatami showed off the drones on Saturday. He said that one jet-powered UAV could fly at speeds of 900 km per hour at an altitude of 12,000 meters. This would rival the best drones that the US and other countries are now using. These drones have a range of up to 1,500 km, he said, and can fly for several hours. It is a message to Israel, the US and their allies: We can reach you.
Iran says it has provided a "mass delivery" of the Ababil-3 and Karar drones to the air force. The country has a new drone unit that it established in recent years and its IRGC has been using drones to target various enemies, including ISIS. The Ababil-3, Hatami says, can fly 150 km, and the Karar is armed with various weapons that now give the drones "pinpoint" attack abilities. The implication is that these drones have guided bombs and can operate like cruise missiles.
The Ababil-3 is a redesign of earlier Iranian drones, with twin tails. It is likely based on a South African design which itself may have been borrowed from old Israeli designs, such as the Israeli Hunter or Mastiff. The Ababil-3 is supposed to be a medium-range reconnaissance drone, but Iran says it has "combat" potential and can carry other payloads as well. It has an electro-optical add-on that enables it to collect footage. Iran used this capability in September 2018 to target Kurdish dissidents in Iraq, filming its missile attacks with a drone.
Meanwhile, the Karar is designed to be a "strategic" drone that Iran says can be used as a kamikaze drone – basically like a cruise missile. Iran has successfully deployed these kinds of technologies to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who have used them against Saudi Arabia in dozens of attacks.
The new drones allegedly have some sort of guided missile or smart bomb ordnance. It's not clear if Iran has perfected the technology and ranges it ascribes to its drones, but attacks in Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia are evidence that Iran's drone threat is increasing.
Iranian drones have been sent to Syria's T-4 base. One of them flew into Israeli airspace in February 2018 and was shot down by a helicopter. Iranian-backed Hezbollah also deployed drones in the Golan in the fall of 2019. Israel carried out an airstrike in August 2019 to neutralize the Hezbollah drone team.
Iran has recently seen some of its shipments of drone parts stopped by the US Navy on the way to Yemen. These included gyroscopes and other technology that Tehran has used elsewhere in drone exports and drone warfare.
Iran exports drones to its "axis of resistance" proxies across the region.
The reason Iran is unveiling its drones now is linked to its annual army day. However, Iran also used army day to showcase efforts to fight the coronavirus. Iran has more than 5,000 dead from COVID-19, and the drone unveiling is therefore a way to show that Iran continues its technological advances despite US sanctions and the pandemic. Iranian IRGC fast boats harassed the US Navy last week in the Persian Gulf – and in the past, Iranian drones have flown over a US aircraft carrier and provoked American ships. The USS Boxer downed an Iranian drone last year.
Iran's drones are its version of an air force. Since Iran does not have a very strong army, the drones are used to pose a strategic threat to enemies. Tehran uses the drones to threaten attacks on infrastructure in other states, and it exports them to what it calls the "axis of resistance," its proxies across the region. Its goal is to upgrade the abilities of groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis, groups which don't have air forces and are ostensibly at the mercy of much more powerful adversaries when it comes to air power.
But the drone threat, in Iran's view, can be a game changer, by posing a threat that is difficult to detect or stop. That was illustrated in the attack on Saudi Arabia, when Iranian drones penetrated both radar defenses and air defenses.
Since Iranian drones are generally not very fast moving and have no stealth abilities, they can be easily detected. Iran has attempted to get around that by using them like cruise missiles, or claiming it has new jet-powered advances. Since the Islamic Republic already has an advanced rocketry program for ballistic missiles, there is no doubt that it has the ability to build different systems. Until they are used, however, it is unclear what their real capabilities are. In Saudi Arabia, Iranian-designed drones have flown hundreds of kilometers, penetrating deep into the country's interior.
Iran has continued to threaten Israel through shipments of precision guided munitions to Hezbollah. Its drone arm is one of many technologies it uses in these continuing efforts.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.