The head of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) drone unit gave a candid and long interview about Iran's new success with drone technology over the weekend. Col. Akbar Karimloo spoke at length regarding new "stealth" drones and the array of vehicles now at his fingertips for waging war across the region. He said the drones had been tested in operations against Kurdish resistance groups and indicated they have become mature to be used across the Middle East.
Iran has pioneered drone use since the 1980s and in recent years has increasingly boasted about new drones that it is delivering to the air force, army, navy and IRGC. It has often copied existing drones that it captured from the US or that it was able to acquire. For instance it is thought that it copied its Ababil-3 design from a South African drone that is itself modelled on an Israeli drone with a distinctive twin-tail design. After Iran claimed to down a US Sentinel drone in 2011 it reverse engineered parts of it and called its version the Saeqeh. Its Shahed 129 is a copy of the well-known American predator drone. It also copied the smaller American Scan Eagle which it unveiled and called Yasir in 2013.
Since that time Iran took another step and built long distance attack drones that behave like cruise missiles. It exported the technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen and used 25 drones and cruise missiles in an attack on Saudi Arabia in September last year. The IRGC now believes its drone arm has become not only mature but a real threat to all Iran's enemies, including Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia and others. It has harassed US ships with drones in the Persian Gulf and it has delivered them to Hezbollah and Syria. In February 2018 Iran flew a drone into Israel from the T-4 base in Syria. Israel shot it down.
Now Karimloo is taking center stage in Tehran as Iran's main drone man. He has spoken about a new "Fotros" stealth drone in recent discussions. The Fotros has been around for years and Iran believes that it can fly up to 2,000 kilometers, meaning it can strike Israel. Karimloo's unit is also receiving new Mohajer-6 drones, the latest IRGC UAV. His interview comes a week after Iran's army and air force said they got new drones. These included Ababil 3 and Karrar drones. The Ababils now claim to be fitted with anti-tank rockets.
The IRGC is boasting of its drone abilities to prove that it is Iran's long arm in the region. It recently showed off wreckage of a US Global Hawk giant surveillance drone that it shot down last June. In the new 4,000-word interview with Tasnim news, Karimloo provided an exclusive look into Iran's drone progress. Sitting in an office flanked by the IRGC flag and model drones, he spoke at length about his role. Karimloo is middle-aged, balding and wears a large ring on his right hand. He has a crystal-encassed model of the Mohajer-6 UAV on his desk. On the wall hangs a photo of him back in his younger years in the IRGC. Today he wears a press dark green uniform with the gold stars indicating his rank.
He says UAVs are the best weapon for today's armed forces. "They will pave the way for increasing ability of our forces in the field. They will be the best weapon system in the future." They are no costly and if you lose them you don't have to sacrifice your own fighters. They can be obtained in the shortest possible time as well. They make intelligence gathering easier and the drone technology has received a lot of momentum in recent years, he says. He says drones are a good platform because you can put add-ons on them, such as cameras or other devices. However, the communications technology involved is complex and he says it is important to invest in it. "In the field of aviation technology, video and combat systems information, we have achieved communication systems with a range of up to 200 km using relays." That means that even out of sight the drone can communicate with a tower or antennas or other planes and relay signals back.
He says that since 2005 he has worked in intelligence and then with operations and observers for the engineers and artillerymen using UAVs. At some point over the last several years the IRGC decided to create its own independent UAV force. The idea was to put strategic priority on the IRGC's drone element, and not concentrate the new technology only in the hands of the air force. This led to upgrades in the UAV group's role.
Karimloo described at length the difficulty of using a drone that can fly for ten hours and go 150 km when you need to remain in contact over mountainous terrain. "Sometimes we need to fly 200 km in a conflict and need constant coverage so continuity of the signal is important. We use remote sensing relays," he says. He says that the information is coded and has to be decrypted as well.
It appears that Iran pushed its drones to first monitor dissidents and to monitor adversaries in neighboring countries. He says that the resolution of images from drones improved and became more necessary than satellite images. Iran installed new video and imaging technology, he says, including thermal sensors, for its reconnaissance drones. He also says Iran acquired expertise in GIS, a geographic software, and remote sensing. "There are benefits to this because it enables commanders to plan to operate in complex geography." Now he says Iran is getting full HD images from its drones.
He points to the use of combat drones in the Kurdish region as an example of where drone strikes and surveillance has been key. He also says he hopes this year to have a drone operational that can evade radar. He points to the new Mohajer-6, Ababil-3 and Sadegh as his key drones. The former both have flight endurance of up to 10 hours. He also says he hopes to take delivery of an operational Shahed 149, similar to the US Reaper drone, in the next year. The IRGC also wants a VTOL-style drone, one that can take off vertically with rotors.
In his interview he says that Iran is primarily using drones in its southeast and northwest, meaning it is using them against insurgent groups and to monitor smuggling in the Kurdish and Baloch areas. He says drones were particularly useful against the PJAK Kurdish resistance group and Kurdish KDP-I which Iran carried out strikes against in 2018 in Iraq.
Karimloo is candid about problems Iran's new Mohajer-6 has faced. The drone was unveiled in 2019, but he indicates it has faced some problems. He says they have worked to increase the drone's engine. One of the issues he says needs more focus in Iran is training forces to work with drones and increasing the education of cadets so that they will have the specialized skills to work with the technology. "The UAV arena is a stressful area and requires hard work in the field. If people are not committed with the right expertise we will not succeed." Drone pilots are trained in avionics and mechanics at university he says.
The overall message of the long interview is that the IRGC is taking seriously the need to establish both the training and economic infrastructure to support its drones. It wants a reliable system in place to increase their range and armament. Karimloo appears candid about both the successes and shortcomings, more candid than the usual bragging whereby Iran claims its drones can reach anywhere in the Middle East with weapons that it has copied from its adversaries.
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.