US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan made a startling announcement earlier this month: Russia is getting hundreds of drones from Iran, and will begin training with them within weeks.
A major discount to the United States selling a batch of drones to others sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel — but will the move give Russia the edge it needs to fundamentally alter the course of its war in Ukraine?
For all the playwrights, buying drones can have as much to do with desperation as complicity. As much as the Pentagon and US officials fear countries like Russia, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, and others working together, the nature of this deal seems much more in the realm of opportunism by Iran and desperation by Russia than some start. Great engagement between Iran and Russia.
Russia’s domestic drone program is weak, its industry is struggling to make up for equipment losses, and Israel, Russia’s traditional partner in drones, is distancing itself from both sides of the conflict. Given that US-allied drone manufacturers such as Turkey are unlikely to sell drones to Russia, only Iran has a domestic drone industry, interest in proliferation, and not worried about the political backlash for withdrawing the move.
Transporting hundreds of drones is a matter of concern, but the types of drones have caused a lot of importance.
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 indicated that drones are “Iran’s fastest-advancing air capability” and that its drones can perform intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, fire ordnance or target and blast. Recently, they have demonstrated the ability to launch drones from surface ships, expanding the range of their strikes.
Sullivan’s announcement offered some hints about the types of drones Iran might offer. US officials allege that Iran offered witness 191 and witness 129 to a Russian delegation in June. Unlike the simple Iranian kamikaze planes, which collide and explode, the 191 and 129 are capable of long-range reconnaissance (ISR) and munitions firing, the latter of which is similar to the famous American MQ-1 Predator.
While the worst-case scenario for Ukraine is for Iran to move its more capable drones en masse to Russia, Tehran will likely want to sponsor its latest systems and send more expendable platforms instead.
In particular, the US announcement mentioned that some drones were capable of manufacturing weapons, such as those supplied by Iran to Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have exceptionally used drones provided by Iran to attack military targets in Yemen, attempt to assassinate leaders at public events, and attack Saudi oil facilities. According to the United Nations, the main systems used by the Houthis are the Ababil and Samad families, both of which have ISR capabilities and kamikaze variants, but they are not capable of such as the Shahid 191 and 129, which can perform ISR missions, and fire munitions. , and return for reuse. If Iran was already mass-producing these cheaper systems to supply to the Houthis, it would not be difficult or risky for Tehran to sell many of them to Moscow, with a smaller number of 191 and 129 supplied.
The big question is whether Iranian drones are an indication that Russia is in short supply of its own drones. Artillery is central to Russia’s progress, and UAVs with long-distance strike capabilities will allow Russia to locate targets and correct artillery fire in real time. By some estimates, Russia has lost dozens of its ISR drones, such as the Orlan-10. At the same time, Iranian drones are no less resistant to Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems, which raises the question of how long they will last longer than Orleans, once deployed.
It is also possible that the drones could complement Russia’s long-range strike options to make its larger weapons more effective. The Houthis often claim that they use their drones in coordination with missiles, likely to complicate Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. The Russian kamikaze drone appears to be in short supply, lacking the necessary range to strike targets deep in Ukraine. Kamikaze drones can be a problem for embattled Ukrainian air defenses, particularly once they cross the front line.
Overall, Ukraine is right to worry that Russia can now buy more drones from abroad, but there is a limit to how much damage they can do tactically, and it probably won’t make much of a difference strategically.
But if Iran begins transporting more advanced drones, helps smuggle components Russia lacks, or perhaps negotiates the sale of other weapons like missiles — all bets may be off the table.