Why Iran’s drone programme is a ‘triumph’

New Delhi: Eleven months into the invasion, the Biden administration is scrambling to prevent Iran from supplying drones to Russia after witnessing the extent to which the Iranian Shahed-136 drones — also called “lawn mowers” or “mopeds” — wreaked havoc in war-torn Ukraine.

The war has shown how, with their precision strike capabilities, cheap drones, especially the ones like the Iran-made Shahed-136, have democratisated the modern battlefield.

It is not as if drones have brought in precision strikes for the first time. Precision strike capability has always been the focus of the military. But it comes at a huge cost.

For instance, precision-guided munitions accounted for 8 per cent of total munitions used by US-led coalition forces against the Saddam Hussein regime in the first Gulf War (1991). But their share in the total cost incurred on munitions by the US-led coalition was approximately 84 per cent.

One of the mainstays of precision strike missiles with the US military is the 1,300 kg Tomahawk subsonic cruise missile that costs about USD 2 million a piece at current prices, according to the London-based security and international affairs think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Washington-based think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes
that though it is cheap, Iran’s Shahed-136 drone retains important capabilities, including the ability to evade radar detection and to operate at a range of up to 1,500 miles. By comparison, Ukraine’s US-supplied single-use Switchblade drones only operate in the range of 25 miles.

The success of Iran’s drone programme in the face of heavy sanctions is a lesson for India’s defence and security establishment, especially the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) which has been struggling with its Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) programme for decades.

India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had in 2020 slammed DRDO’s UAV programme for poor planning, keeping end users in dark and flouting standard operating procedures.

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Conception of Iran’s drone programme

Treated as a pariah by the West, Iran claims to have drones with the ability to deliver precision-guided missiles in a whopping range of 2,000 km, besides flight endurance of over 24 hours and stealth capabilities.

The US-based bipartisan non-profit United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) notes that while Tehran’s technological prowess is often exaggerated for propagandistic purposes, the success of its drone programme represents a technological triumph for the Islamic Republic.

Washington severed military and diplomatic relations with Tehran after the Iranian revolution in 1979 led to the ouster of the US-backed Shah of Iran, and the subsequent foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Iranian drone programme began in the 1980s and it has advanced its military UAV
program, seeking to improve its fleets’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and to field UAVs able to carry out airstrikes.

 Iran has unveiled numerous new drone systems just over the last decade, many of which have been used in combat, demonstrating Tehran’s advancements in the UAV space, UANI notes.

Tehran’s focus on drones came about as it was looking for ways to monitor and harass ships in the Persian Gulf. 

In 1985, the Iranian military set up the Quds Aviation Industry Company as a wing of its Self-Sufficiency Organization. Later that year, it tested its first UAV, Mohajer-1, which demonstrated its usefulness during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).

A predecessor to one of the drones Tehran is now supplying to Russia, the Mohajer-1 was crudely designed and came fitted with a single oblique camera on its nose. It is understood that this was a still camera and its film was developed only upon recovery. 

This drone was used in the later stages of the war to photograph Iraqi infantry positions in preparation for offensives and to yield intelligence that would prevent Iranian troops from walking into ambushes, UANI notes.

Tehran also reportedly attempted to outfit these drones with rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers under each wing, but it is unclear whether its attempts ever bore fruit.

Beginning in the 1990s, Iran developed several new variants of the Mohajer, the latest being the Mohajer-6. Every single variant boasted increased range and flight endurance, besides more precise strike capabilities.

In the mid-200os, Iran also shifted its focus on building attack drones and now has a full-fledged array of such UAVs.

Karrar, unveiled in 2010, was the first such attack drone. Iranian state media declared then that it had “different capabilities, including carrying bombs to destroy targets” and could fly for a “long-range at high speed”.

Two years later, in September 2012, Iran unveiled the Shahed-129 — a significant step forward in Tehran’s efforts to develop a strike-capable UAV. 

It is believed that the new drone was developed by reverse engineering an American RQ-170 UAV which flew over Iran to map the hundreds of tunnels dug by the Iranians to conceal elements of their nuclear program.

Washington maintained it was a malfunction that led to the RQ-170 landing in an Iranian desert, while Tehran claimed it hacked the drone and forced it to land.

However, it is also believed that the Shahed-129 is largely based on the Israeli Hermes 450 model, rather than the American one. This means that Iranians could have also captured and reverse-engineered an Israeli drone.

Western components in Iranian drones

Despite Tehran’s persistent anti-West rhetoric, western components are key to the Iranian drone programme.

According to an analysis of four Iranian drones captured in Ukraine, over 70 manufacturers based in 13 different countries and territories, including the western world and Asia, produced drone components for Tehran.

Conducted by the UK-based investigative organisation Conflict Armament Research, the analysis also shows that 82 per cent of the components were manufactured in companies based in the United States. 

In December last year, the  Biden administration launched an expansive task force to investigate how components made in the West, including American-made microelectronics, made their way into Iranian drones.

A report by The New York Times suggests that the White House reached out to American manufacturers after photographs began to circulate of the circuit boards of downed Iranian drones in Ukraine — visibly packed with chips manufactured by the US-based firms in question.

Almost all manufacturers had the same response: the chips are unrestricted, “dual use” items and tracking or stopping their circulation is almost impossible.

Security sources abroad point out that Iran has mastered the art of operating under sanctions. For its drones and other military programmes, Iran managed to get foreign components like engines from arms brokers or through front companies that sourced the required components.

India too ‘process driven’, not ‘goal oriented’

While the success of the Iranian drone programme does not come as a surprise for many in the Indian defence establishment and industry, sources say its success demands deeper introspection by New Delhi.

Explaining how Iran’s focus has always centred on simple designs and simple engines, one source tells ThePrint, “India does not want to keep it simple. There is a huge disconnect between the DRDO and the end user in our country, the armed forces. The end user is not able to decide what it actually wants in a real-life scenario and the DRDO ends up promising the moon and failing to deliver.”

India’s Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had in 2020 slammed DRDO’s UAV programme for poor planning, keeping end users in dark and flouting standard operating procedures.

Pointing out that Iranian drones come equipped with baseline counter GPS jamming systems which are able to counter jamming to a certain extent, a second source says, “There are about 10 drone programmes that the Indian armed forces are inducting and none of them has a requirement to operate in a GPS-denied atmosphere.”

On why the Iranians have been able to circumvent sanctions to further their drone programme and India’s efforts have fallen short, the first source says, “India is a process-driven country and not goal oriented. Iran had a goal and worked towards it. It is easier there because everything comes under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”.

Sources in the defence establishment accept that much of India’s focus has been on the process itself, adding that the government has been trying to make the process simpler. Building on their argument, sources cite the IDEX programme which seeks to cut through the maze of processes and fast track development of niche technology and their easier absorption into the armed forces.

However, industry sources say the government’s thrust on adding more projects to the IDEX initiative actually works against the concept.

“The idea is to focus on some core projects and ramp it up through government funding and handholding. More projects mean that the pie gets divided into smaller units. The question is whether there should be quality or numbers,” says a third source in the defence establishment.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

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