What Vladimir Putin can do with his deadly new drones from Iran

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made a startling announcement earlier this month: Russia is receiving hundreds of drones from Iran and will begin training with them within weeks.

A major US adversary selling one swarm of drones to another sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel, but will this move give Russia the edge it needs to fundamentally change the course? of his war in Ukraine?

For all the histrionics, buying a drone might have as much to do with desperation as collusion. As frightened as Pentagon and US officials are of countries like Russia, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and others working together, the nature of this deal seems much more rise from Iran’s opportunism and Russia’s desperation than from the start of some major Iran-Russia engagement.

Russia’s national drone program is lackluster, its industry is struggling to replace lost equipment, and Israel, Russia’s traditional drone partner, is distancing itself from both sides in the conflict. Since US-aligned drone manufacturers like Turkey are unlikely to sell drones to Russia, only Iran has the domestic drone industry, proliferation interest, and lack of of concern about the political reactions to making this decision a success.

The transfer of hundreds of drones is concerning, but the types of drones sent matter a lot.

Iran manufactures dozens of different types of drones, from the tiny kamikaze drones to the large strike platforms that most people imagine when they think of drone warfare. A 2019 overview of Iran’s military by the US Defense Intelligence Agency noted that drones “are Iran’s fastest growing air capability” and that their drones can perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, firing ammo or crashing into a target and exploding. More recently, they have shown an ability to launch drones from surface ships, which extends their strike range.

Iranian Army Chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi and Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri visit an underground site with drones at an undisclosed location in Iran on 28 May 2022.

Iranian military/WANA/Reuters

Sullivan’s announcement provided some clues about the types of drones Iran might supply. US officials say Iran presented the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 to a Russian delegation in June. Unlike simple Iranian kamikaze drones, which hit their target and explode, the 191 and 129 are capable of long-range reconnaissance (ISR) and ammo firing, the latter resembling the infamous US MQ-1 Predator drone.

While the worst-case scenario for Ukraine would be Iran transferring its most capable drones en masse to Russia, it’s more likely that Tehran will want to deal with its newer systems and send more durable platforms instead. .

In particular, the US announcement mentioned that some of the drones were capable of weapons, such as these Iranian supplies to Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have made extraordinary use of Iran-supplied drones to attack military targets in Yemen, attempt to assassinate leaders at public events and attack Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. According to the UN, the main systems used by the Houthis are the Ababil and Samad families, which both have ISR capabilities and kamikaze variants, but are not as capable as the Shahed-191 and 129, which can carry out missions ISR, fire ammo, and return for reuse. If Iran is already producing these cheaper systems in large quantities to supply to the Houthis, then it would not be difficult or risky for Tehran to sell many of them to Moscow, while supplying a smaller number of 191s and 129s.

The big question is whether Iranian drones are an indicator that Russia lacks its own drone supply. Artillery is key to Russia’s advance, and drones with long-range strike capabilities would allow Russia to locate targets and correct artillery fire in real time. According to some estimates, Russia has lost dozens of its own ISR drones, such as the Orlan-10. At the same time, Iranian drones are no less impervious to Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems, raising the question of how much longer they would outlast Orlans once deployed.

A drone is launched during a large-scale drone combat exercise of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army, in Semnan, Iran, January 4, 2021.

Iranian military/WANA/Reuters

It’s also possible that drones will complement Russia’s long-range strike options to make their more powerful weapons more effective. The Houthis often claim they use their drones in concert with missiles, presumably to complicate Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. Russia’s Kamikaze drone appears to be in short supply and lacks the range to strike targets deep in Ukraine. Kamikaze drones could prove to be a problem for Ukraine’s beleaguered air defenses, especially once they cross the front line.

Overall, Ukraine is right to fear that Russia can now source more drones from abroad, but there is a limit to the amount of damage it can do tactically, and it probably won’t. not much difference strategically.

But if Iran starts transferring more sophisticated drones, helps smuggle components that Russia lacks, or perhaps negotiates the sale of other ranged weapons like missiles, all bets could be off.

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