Thriving Iranian UAV Industry: Increasing Threat to International Peace and Security

By Arie Egozi

Foreign Affairs
Tel Aviv: The Iranian UAV industry is galloping ahead with Russian assistance and it is expected that new versions of attack UAVs will be exposed soon. The existing armed UAVs are exported by Iran to its proxies in the Middle East and in Venezuela.
And these UAV are launched to hit targets in Israel almost on a daily basis. On May 27, two such armed UAVs approached Israel from the east and were intercepted by Israeli air force combat aircraft.
Russia has increased large-scale production of the Shahed-136 suicide drone (kamikaze) in cooperation with Iran.
According to a report by the Wall Street Journal on May 28, 2024, Russia plans to produce 6,000 Shahad 136 UAVs annually at a new facility located in the Alabuga Special Industrial Zone in Tatarstan.
Dr Raz Zimmet, a senior researcher in the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) said that the Iranians decided to develop their drone industry as one way of acquiring advanced defence capabilities like they did with ballistic missiles.
“The war in Ukraine and the fact that the Russians did not have advanced armed drones resulted in the delivery of thousands of these drones to Russia and to the establishment of a pre-production site for these drones in Russia,” added Dr Zimmet.
The researcher assessed that Russia does not pay for the Iranian armed drones but instead will supply advanced weapon systems like the SU-35 combat aircraft to the Iranian air force or help the Iranians in a steady supply chain of dual use component for their defence industry.
According to special report prepared by the United States Institute of Peace, Iran has various types of drones. Iran has at least 10 different models of suicide drones, which explode on impact.
“They can be as accurate as a ballistic missile, but they can fly lower to evade radar. Smaller models, such as the Shahed-136, carry less than 45 kilograms (100 pounds) of explosives. One of the smallest models, the Meraj-521, carries only 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) of explosives. Many are slow and therefore easier to shoot down by anti-aircraft guns or missiles. Their ranges are as little as 5 kilometres (3 miles) or as far as 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles). Iran’s largest suicide drones, such as the Arash series, can carry nearly 260 kilograms (575 pounds) of explosives. They have ranges of 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles).”
The report says that Iran has more than a dozen models of combat drones that can attack ground, sea or air targets and then return to base. Larger models, such as the Shahed-149, have ranges of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) and can carry up to 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of munitions or electronic equipment.
A report in the website of the Atlantic Council says that in recent years, and even more so in the last year alone, Iran has been increasing the pace of its sales and transfers of UAVs to various parts of the globe, including Ethiopia, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Western Sahara’s Polisario Front.
“Iran is well on its way to becoming a leading arms exporter globally, especially since additional countries are interested in buying these capabilities,” the report said.
According to this report, the economic profit Iran receives in this regard is clear. It is estimated that the cost of the popular Shahed-136 is $20,000-$40,000 for one unit. This fact, together with the reports that Iran sold more than two thousand drones to Russia alone, makes it clear that Tehran earns millions of dollars from these transactions.
However, Iran obtains more than financial gains from this dynamic, as it also deepens the Islamic Republic’s political foothold in these countries, creating dependence on the former and its products.
“In this context, Iran has significant advantages compared to countries like the United Kingdom, Israel, or the United States, which export similar capabilities worldwide. Iran’s drones and other military capabilities, such as Fateh-110 short-range missiles, are cheaper than its Western competitors. On top of that, Iran has no political or legal restrictions that prevent it from selling these weapons around the world; it is apparently not afraid that these products will fall into the hands of dangerous foreign parties,” mentions the report.
Hezbollah published a video footage of a strike performed using a UAV equipped with rockets on May 16. The UAV probably an Ababil T, fired two rockets at a target in northern Israel.
According to Boaz Shapira, an analyst from the Alma Research Centre in Israel, the UAVs used in this attack on Israeli targets were equipped with a camera that transmitted video to the operator.
“This enables the UAV pilot to fly it and hit its target, and also enables documentation of the attack. This matter is very important for Hezbollah as part of its propaganda and awareness campaign,” said Boaz Shapira.
Shapira said that it seems that the optical sensor on this UAV, was a basic one, but there are indications that more advanced optical payloads are in the hands of the Iranians.
The analyst said that the rockets used to attack the target in Israel were the S-5 type from the Soviet era.
“There are some versions of this rocket and they carry approx. A 2 kg warhead and have a range of up to 4 km. This rocket may be upgraded with a laser targeting system.”
Shapira added that the Hezbollah’s footage, which was released on May 16, indicates that the rockets were not guided and launched from metal pipes attached to the UAVs wings.
“There are indications that the UAV operator launched the rockets when the UAV started its dive towards the target. It seems that the operator has the capability to crash the UAV on a nearby site after the rockets have been launched.”
The analyst added that Iran with the help of Russia, is advancing very fast in its armed UAV program. “The close cooperation between Iran and Russia helps Iran to move ahead in big steps.”
Iran is the main supplier of armed UAV to the Russians that are being used by them in the war in Ukraine.
Tal Inbar, a senior Israeli defence analyst said that the UAV used by the Hezbollah in the recent attack is a basic one.
“There are very clear indications that the Iranians have much more advanced UAVs that carry different warheads and different rockets and they are exporting these to its proxies in the middle east and in other parts of the world. One such client is Venezuela.”
An Israeli defence source that talked on condition of anonymity said that the Iranian UAV industry is “blooming” in spite of the international sanctions applied by the west.
“Iran is using a large number of straw companies that purchase dual use components in the US and Europe and these are used to build the growing line of armed UAVs,” the Israeli defence sources added.
The US is very concerned about the Iranian UAV industry. This is reflected in a joint paper released by the US departments of commerce, treasury, justice and state.
According to the paper, Iran’s procurement, development, and proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is an increasing threat to international peace and security.
“The Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, the Department of State, and the Department of the Treasury are issuing this advisory to alert persons and businesses globally to the threat of Iran’s UAV-related
activities and the need to take appropriate steps to avoid or prevent any activities that would support the further development of Iran’s UAV program.”
According to the statement, the US is committed to countering Iran’s UAV programs, including through preventing abuse of the US financial system and disrupting the procurement of foreign-sourced components.
“Iran’s development, procurement, and proliferation of UAVs destabilises the Middle East region and beyond. Over the past ten years, Iran has increased its inventory of both armed and unarmed UAVs, whose low cost, simplicity of production, and ease of use make them appealing to entities and countries of concern to which Iran may transfer them, including but not limited to.”
According to the statement, Iran relies on foreign procurement to obtain items it cannot produce domestically often preferring US origin technologies. Recovered Iranian-origin UAVs used by Russian forces in Ukraine reveal that Iran’s UAV program has used many components produced by third-country suppliers.
Brigadier General (Res.) Miki Bar, former commander of one of the Israeli airforce’s main air bases, said that the swift proliferation of the Iranian made armed drones created a major problem.
“These basic armed drones fly low and have a low radar signature. I think there will be no other way to deal with this threat but with small drones that will be in the air, detect the incoming armed drone and either collide with it or shoot it down with missiles,” he said.
Bar explained that while this solution is only on paper, the current available way is to detect the armed drones by the sensors of fighter aircraft patrolling the area and shoot them by one of the weapon systems carried by the fighter aircraft.
On May 23, an Israeli airforce fighter aircraft intercepted an armed drone that approached the Israeli air space from the east. This armed drones was probably launched by the Iranian led militias operating in Iraq. These armed groups also use armed drones to attack US forces in Iraq.