Tehran’s growing use of drones reflects an old Iranian ethos of combining technological progress with self-reliance. Meanwhile, Israel is taking drone warfare one step further
In the long war between Iran and its rivals in the Middle East, most of it occurring beneath the surface, Tehran is increasingly using remotely piloted drones to mount attacks. In May and June the Iranians were behind at least five such attacks against American bases in Syria and Iraq.
Earlier, on May 18, while Israel was deep in the air war with Gaza, an Iranian drone was launched from Iraq, passed over Jordan and entered Israeli airspace before being downed over the Beit She’an Valley in the north.
Israel released few details on the downing of the aircraft, though both then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi, mentioned the stymieing of the drone in speeches at the end of the fighting with Gaza. Netanyahu views the incident as proof that Iran “is the true patron of terrorism in the Middle East.”
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., the head of U.S. Central Command, warned in April that the region is becoming a proving ground for drones, most of them Iranian-made. Iran isn’t the only player in the region that covets these weapons. For Hamas, which employed them liberally before and during the fighting in May, drones let the group, to some degree, respond to Israel’s vast air superiority – a cheap substitute for an air force.
The moment that transformed the region’s perception of drones occurred in September 2019, when Iran attacked Saudi oil facilities. The attack caused huge damage to a site of Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, and disrupted oil exports from the kingdom for several months.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ big success – a coordinated strike of drones and cruise missiles on targets about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away – stunned military experts in Israel and the West. To the Iranians, it didn’t matter that many of their drones apparently didn’t reach their target. The impact on the consciousness was more important.
The IDF believes that the choice to massively develop drones makes sense for Iran. It jibes with the old Iranian ethos linking scientific and technological progress, independent manufacturing and self-reliance within what Spiritual Leader Ali Khamenei likes to call the “resistance economy.”
The Iranians specialize in making replicas, good or less so, of advanced weapons systems produced in other countries, based on reverse engineering of these weapons. Some of the final products don’t meet Western standards, but Iran believes the results are sufficient.
Operational and strategic constraints also play a part. For many years Iran invested in developing rockets and missiles of various ranges. The trouble is that a ballistic missile is heavy, awkward and inflexible. True, it’s an important deterrent, but it’s noisy, as it were, and doesn’t allow for deniability as drones do. When Iran launched missiles at American bases in Iraq, after the assassination of the Guards’ Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani, the Americans reacted fiercely.
But with a drone, a military source in Israel says, “it’s easier to dream.” The Iranians’ use of drones is influenced by what the Americans and especially the Israelis did with them earlier, in the so-called war between the wars.
From the operational angle, a chisel is sometimes preferable to a hammer. Drones are relatively easy to operate, require small launch crews and are easy to move between sectors and organizations. It’s easy to train soldiers to operate them, and the drones can be launched in various ways and from a variety of platforms.
From the strategic angle, the adversary can be harassed without prompting a harsh response that will lead to war. Organizations that don’t actually exist claimed responsibility for some of the drone attacks in Iraq, though it can be surmised that Shi’ite militias run by Iran were behind these efforts. Drones are also an alternative to Iranian fighter planes, which simply don’t exist except for ancient American Phantoms dating to the shah’s time.
According to a survey published this year on the website Iran Primer, in 2004 the Iranians started transferring drones and spare parts to their partners in at least four parts of the Middle East: Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and the Gaza Strip. Drones were also smuggled to Venezuela, whose government is friendly with Iran.
The Iranian drones are divided between intelligence-collecting missions and attack/suicide missions. They have different ranges, from hovercraft with a range of 15 kilometers to drones that can fly 1,700 kilometers.
The attacks have targeted the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and extremist Sunni organizations in Syria and Iraq. In an article for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the analyst Fabian Hinz describes the drone deliveries to the militias as part of Iran’s asymmetric strategy designed to offset the country’s military weaknesses. Hinz discerns an Iranian approach that combines arms smuggling, manufacturing in the target countries and the installation of precision kits to improve rockets.
In tweets at the beginning of July, Hinz discussed Khamenei’s visit to a Revolutionary Guards’ weapons exhibition in 2014 where new drones and missiles were on display. It turns out that some of these weapons were used in the attack on Saudi Arabia five years later. Hinz concludes that some of the systems are actually made by the Revolutionary Guards and not by Iran’s military industries.
The impression gleaned by the IDF is that the Iranians have completed the whole production chain in developing drones. “They’re developing all the basic components themselves – the body of the aircraft, the engine, the navigation systems, the ability to ensure a low radar signature and to maneuver between the flight range and the weight of the load,” a military source says.
“The Iranians have sewed themselves a comfortable suit, with an effective means that can be used both in the war between the wars and in wartime. There’s no tiebreaker here: Drones are intended for harassment, collection and deterrence, not for victory. But their progress has been significant. It’s no wonder the Americans, like us, are worried about it.”
The next big thing
The urgent need for an enhanced response to drones and hovercraft has been raised in all the recent security meetings between Israel and the United Sates, including the Washington visits by Gantz and Kochavi. At the same time, intelligence and radar cooperation has been upgraded between Israel and Centcom, whose units are scattered throughout the region. It can’t be ruled out that this was linked to the interception of the Iranian drone over northern Israel in May.
In addition, adjustments have been made to the Iron Dome system, which originally wasn’t intended to battle drones, which fly at modest speeds. During the fighting in May, tweaks let Iron Dome intercept drones for the first time.
“The challenge that the drones of Iran and its satellites pose to us is constantly increasing,” a senior General Staff officer told Haaretz. “We’re working to improve our capability, but we aren’t yet sure that the response is complete.”
Another officer added: “The problem isn’t only the meager radar signature that the drones leave, it’s that so many organizations operated by Iran already possess them. Along with improving our defense, we need to develop the possibility to identify Iranian responsibility for attacks.
“At the moment, they’re under the mistaken impression that they have … room for deniability that will blur their responsibility and prevent a response against them. That might have worked on the Saudis; it must not be allowed to work on us.”
Drones’ great power was illustrated in the past year in two offenses that Israel took part in, one of them directly. The first was the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia during the fall, the second was the fighting with Gaza.
In the six weeks of the war in the Caucasus, the Azerbaijanis had the upper hand, largely thanks to their massive use of Israeli- and Turkish-made drones. The Armenians had to ask for a cease-fire.
Military experts in the West believe that the drone attacks provided the Azerbaijanis with an immense advantage; they systematically hit Armenian infantry, armor and artillery. That success will likely step up the production of drones around the world, along with small hovercraft that fly lower.
As they did with the Iranians, the drones gave the Azerbaijanis a simple and cheap way to use precision munitions. Azerbaijan also published footage of its hits on Armenian troops.
The Washington Post wrote that the Nagorno-Karabakh war provided the most vivid illustration of drones’ ability to change a campaign hitherto dictated by planes and ground forces. The war also showed that even advanced weapons, from radar to tanks, are exposed to destruction from the air in the absence of a specific defense.
The Armenians’ aging Soviet antiaircraft systems couldn’t cope, and the drone attacks opened a path for ground advances. According to various estimates, about a third of the Armenian tanks were destroyed in these attacks.
Israel took the use of drones and hovercraft one step further in the fighting in May. For the first time, swarms of drones attacked Hamas after rocket launchers were spotted. This method is based on a rapid analysis of information received via artificial intelligence to identify launch sites.
The swarms were set in motion with the drones communicating and coordinating among one another. Part of Israel’s progress will be presented to foreign air forces in a first international exercise of its kind that the air force will soon host.