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I Have Seen Iran’s Drones Up Close: They Could Help Russia Fight Ukraine

Iran Drone
Saegheh-2 UAV at the Eqtedar 40 defence exhibition in Tehran.

Many observers were quick to mock Russia’s acquisition of Iranian drones for use in Ukraine. Analysts consider it more evidence of Russian decline, which it is.

However, we cannot underestimate the capabilities of these platforms and the threat they present. As a C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, mortar) battle captain in Iraq who was responsible for counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or C-UAS, I too scoffed at the idea that Iranian drones posed any threat to me, my soldiers, or the theater-level assets we were responsible for defending. It didn’t take long for us to realize that these drones were nothing to dismiss and posed a severe threat to our forces.

Iranian drones have regularly attacked American and coalition forces in the Middle East, many times slipping through formidable American defenses and striking targets on U.S. bases. Beyond American forces, Iranian drones have posed such a serious threat to Sunni Gulf states and to Israel that these states have formed an unlikely military partnership. That collaboration emerged after Iranian drones attacked forces and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. The drones have also been used to target individuals – a capability once almost exclusive to the U.S. – most notably in an assassination attempt against the Iraqi prime minister that did not fail by much. In the context of Ukraine, these platforms have already successfully attacked key Ukrainian forces and are likely an even greater threat than what American forces and partners have faced in the Middle East.

These Drones Are Hard to Shoot Down

Before evaluating the unique threat these systems pose in Ukraine, it’s important to understand their capabilities and functions. So far, Russia has reportedly acquired the Mohajer-6 as well as multiple Shahed-series platforms, including the Shahed 129, the Shahed 191, and the Shahed-136, which has already destroyed U.S.-supplied M777 howitzers in Ukraine

The Mohajer-6 is a dual-purpose platform that can both provide Intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance, and deliver guided munitions with a range of roughly 200 km. The Shahed 129 and 191 are also dual-role platforms, but they can carry larger payloads and have a much greater range of up to 1700 km and 1500 km, respectively. The Shahed-136, on the other hand, is a kamikaze drone that carries an explosive payload and flies directly into its target. These kamikaze drones were what kept me and my friends up at night in Iraq.

With such capabilities and functions in mind, it is also important to recognize the unique challenges these drones pose in the area of force protection. First, they are exceptionally hard to track on radar, as they do not share the characteristics of the manned aircraft most modern air defense systems were designed for. Due to their small radar cross-section, relatively slow speed, and low altitude, drones present a unique challenge. They require the use of specific technologies that allow air defenders to identify the drones based on the above characteristics. Second, even if Ukrainian forces can manage to identify and track Iranian UAS systems, they are hard to shoot down for the same reasons they are hard to find on radar: They are not manned aircraft, and most air defense systems weren’t designed to shoot them down. 

An Asymmetric Threat

While American forces in the Middle East have had more recent success defending against Iranian drones, it was a long learning curve to develop competent C-UAS strategies and adapt existing weapons and technologies to meet the threat. The situations of American forces in the Middle East and the Ukrainian army are not comparable whatsoever. American forces in Iraq and Syria have the luxury of being in fixed, static defensive positions where they are almost entirely focused on force protection. This allows them to emplace necessary air defenses and to have assets and personnel fully dedicated to C-UAS operations at all times. The Ukrainians do not have that luxury. They are engaged in a completely different style of warfare, one where UAS is only one threat on a long list of Russian artillery, rockets, missiles, aircraft, ships, and maneuver forces. 

Additionally, in the wake of Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces are not in a static defense posture. They are on the move in fluid and contested offensive operations, which makes air defense exceedingly more difficult and leaves them especially vulnerable to UAS threats posed by these Iranian platforms. 

While the U.S. provides support in other areas, like long-range fires and intelligence, we cannot assume that Iranian support to Russia is merely superficial. We have made the mistake of underestimating their UAS capabilities before. Ukraine will need the necessary air defense and C-UAS assets to defend its forces against this unique threat. 

The U.S. has an abundance of knowledge and lessons learned in this specific area to share with Ukraine. At a time when Kyiv appears to have the advantage, Russia could employ these UAS platforms as asymmetric threats against a force that is beating them on the conventional battleground. That is exactly what Iran has been doing to the U.S. for decades in the Middle East. It is essential that we take this threat seriously and adapt our support accordingly. 

Expert Biography: Cam McMillan served as a field artillery officer in the US Army from 2018-2022 and deployed to Iraq as a C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, mortar) battle captain in 2021, where he was responsible for C-UAS operations. Cam is an assistant director of program administration at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Masters candidate in global studies & international relations at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.

Written By

Cam McMillan served as a field artillery officer in the US Army from 2018-2022 and deployed to Iraq as a C-RAM (counter rocket, artillery, mortar) battle captain in 2021, where he was responsible for C-UAS operations. Cam is an assistant director of program administration at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University and a Masters candidate in global studies & international relations at Northeastern University. The views expressed in this article are solely his own.

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Arash P

    September 19, 2022 at 3:49 pm

    Iran is a country with military budget of mere 20$ Billion, dwarfed by 800$ B US military budget and several times smaller than even Saudi Arabia’s military budget.

    Yet Iran has decisively, practically defeated US in the mideast and has made Israelis to wish for a NATO alliance with Arabs!

    And has done all of that while being under the most severe sanctions.

    And yet Iranian drones in Russia were immediately mocked by and dismissed by the westerners.

    America’s biggest enemy is not Iran. It is its own hubris!

    The same hubris that makes Americans think that they have they power to let or not let Iran develop nukes!

  2. 403Forbidden

    September 19, 2022 at 4:44 pm

    Iranian combat drones are making a direct contribution to anti-neo nazi operations in ukraine, thanks to obama.

    In 2011, obama allowed CIA to fly most advanced US drone over western iran from CIA base in afghanistan.

    Result was iranian forces completely hijacked the rq170 and landed it safely on iranian territory.

    It was an intelligence scoop by iran in more ways than one. THANKS OBAMA.

  3. Gary Jacobs

    September 19, 2022 at 4:52 pm

    Arash:

    I have warned that Russian use of Iranian drones is one of the only things Russia has available to caused havoc for Ukraine at this point as most of Russia’s military is somewhere between combat exhausted and defeated in Ukraine. That said, Russia still does not have the combat power to reverse their loses. And as more air defense system get to Ukraine, especially the VIPER, Iranian drones will have a diminishing impact as well.

    As for Israel, they seek alliance with the Arabs because they seek peace, and Iranian aggression against all of them is only one factor. Not to mention the fact that Israel’s technological superiority in drone defense and missile defense makes the Arabs states great customers and sources of revenue as Iran continues to threaten them.
    Israel has a multi layered missile/air defense system. Currently consisting largely of kinetic interceptors that have taken down every single Iranian drone sent at Israel.

    In the near future, Israel will have several forms of defense that go beyond kinetic:

    – the Scorpius system based on AESA radar which uses a soft kill and is able to engage multiple targets at once.

    -Iron Beam is a laser based defense system, for which the ground system will be deployed in less than a year, and soon will have a drone based system which can fly over cloud cover and shoot down rockets/missiles/drones without weather getting in the way.

    American company Lockheed Martin just delivered a 300kw laser system to the US military, which is just in the power range of being able to shoot down high subsonic cruise missiles, as well as every drone Iran has.

    Bottom Line: Iran’s drones are going to have diminishing effect just about everywhere they try to menace others. You should fold up the ego you have on it and put it away.

  4. Roger Bacon

    September 19, 2022 at 4:53 pm

    Maybe we’ll see a return of cheaper AA guns to counter drones instead of the anti0air missiles we’ve relied on for the past few decades. Either that or small hand-launched suicide counter-drone drones front line soldiers could throw at incoming drones they spot.

    Also, with all the talk of drones lately, I’ve wondered how hard is it to just jam them. How does the operator communicate with them? Satellite? Radio? Seems if we can jam a missile we should be able to jam a drone.

  5. Observer

    September 19, 2022 at 8:38 pm

    Obviously US has more advance technology, but I don’t think they completely figured out a plan to neutralize Iranian drones. The writer assumption is wrong that Iran was in all out attack on US forces in the region, that never was. Iran likely provided limited functionality of a simpler versions of locally assembled drones to it proxies, with limited or no trace back to them, just to “encourage” US to move out of Iraq. I guess they knew well that a massive attack with large number of causalities would cause a harsh retaliation and direct conflict with US and that was not in their interest at all. But Russia do not have a concern with Ukraine and apparently in possession of advance drones like Shahed 129 and 191 and Mohajer-6 built and tested first hand.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 19, 2022 at 8:45 pm

    Ukraine claims 920 UAV kills in 6 months of combat. Will Iranian UAV’s be more effective than Russian ones?

    The fact is cheap long range attritable drones can be made by off-the-shelf mechanics. Hobbyists have been making remote controlled aircraft for decades. Most 3rd world countries can easily scale up to the manufacture of armed or warhead bearing drones. Air defenses have had to respond, and shooting down drones has become a major effort of air defenses.

    That said, Iranian drones are unreliable crap not worth the money unless no other makers will sell to you, and sanctions prevent domestic manufacture. The Iranians are hosing the Russians now that they have them over a barrel.

  7. self

    September 19, 2022 at 9:48 pm

    There will be a new class of drones coming. They will be much like nature’s birds of prey. A stealthy soaring multiuse raptor that feeds on other drones. Keen IR and visual AI. Microwave and EMP weapons. Small missiles. Lots and lots of different options for how they could use such a vehicle and weapons employed.

  8. Steven

    September 19, 2022 at 9:52 pm

    Jacksonian you always crack me up…

  9. Arash P

    September 20, 2022 at 2:36 am

    Gary Jacobs:

    I agree. Iran doesn’t have much capabilities. Defeating America in the Mideast was also no big deal.
    After all, even Taliban managed to do that!

  10. aldol11

    September 20, 2022 at 5:29 am

    slow and low altitude?
    sounds like they can be taken down by old AAAs

  11. Gary Jacobs

    September 20, 2022 at 11:32 am

    Arash,

    Pretending that the US is defeated in the broader mideast is hubris of the 1st order. The US made stupid political decisions in Afghanistan and chose defeat in that one place. The Taliban did not win some masterful military campaign. The US could have left 7000-10000 troops and contractors there and kept the situation stable enough for the Afghans to continue fighting the Taliban.

    The Russians made the mistake of believing what you do, and thought that defeat in Afghanistan meant the US was in retreat everywhere. The Ukrainians have proved that a well motivated force with modern weapons provided by the US and NATO are perfectly capable of defeating the Russian Army. Not even Iranian drones will save Russia.

    Similarly in the Mideast, Modern Israeli weapons along with a well motivated people has defeated Iranian attempts to commit genocide against Jews. Even when there is a bit of battlefield success by Iranians or their terrorist proxies, Israelis adapt and innovate far ahead of anything Iran can achieve.

    The aforementioned Scorpius and Iron Beam will make it pennies on the dollar to defeat Iranian drones and Hamas and Hezbollah Rockets. Trophy and Iron Dome defeated their ATGMs and Kassams was a stop gap measure.

    And even in places like Iraq where you may pretend Iran won, there is a Shiite civil war happening because so many Shiites know that Iran is a corrupt and malign influence in their lives. Iran and Hezbollah have also destroyed Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and just about everything and every place they touch. even when you pretend Iran is winning, they are actually losing because they have zero plan for a modern positive future in any of those places.

    Iranian behaviour is so absurd that Arab countries…other Muslims… would rather be allies with the Jews in Israel than the Ayatollah run govt in Iran. Let that sink in for a bit.

  12. Dr. Scooter Van Neuter

    September 20, 2022 at 12:41 pm

    Gary Jacobs:
    You succinctly presented a couple of key points I was going to make in response Arash P’s ignorant comments. The US handily crushed its opponents in the Middle East as long as the powers-that-be had the stomach to finance it.

  13. The Advisor

    September 24, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    Great article Sir.

    Our paths may have crossed. I have been on the receiving end of Iranian drones many times. I watched with my own eyes two get shot down in Iraq. One was less than 500m from me. I work in the C-UAS field. The Group 3 drones especially are no joke. And regardless of what other comments are said here your analysis is spot on. I will actually be sharing your article with the Battle Captains I am currently working with in theater.

    About 6 months ago I was in Saudi Arabia. I got an intelligence briefing about Iranian drone capabilities. I didn’t sleep that night. I knew they were advanced but I had no idea. Iranians have plenty of money for drones.

    I am currently in the EUCOM AO working in the Eastern and Central countries. It is often a challenge to get Commanders to take C-UAS seriously. Sometimes I have to walk away and say to myself “I guess they will have to eat a few drones to wake up”. I hate having to say that to myself.

    Hopefully sharing your eloquent article will awaken the few that don’t see the seriousness of the C-UAS fight.

    Drones are the future of warfare. C-UAS needs to be integrated into all aspects of defense planning.

    Thank you Sir

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