Iran's drone system emerges as major threat - analysis
Iranian drones are emerging as a formidable threat as it is now using
drones to transport other weapons, Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN Published: NOVEMBER 23, 2021 15:29
Updated: NOVEMBER 23, 2021 16:58Email Twitter Facebook fb-messenger
A drone is seen during an Iranian Army exercise dubbed 'Zulfiqar
1400', in the coastal area of the Gulf of Oman, Iran, in this picture
obtained on November 7, 2021 (photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)
(photo credit: IRANIAN ARMY/WANA/REUTERS)
Iranian drones are emerging as the major new threat of 2021. Israel
Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed that Iran has attempted to
transfer weapons using drones from Syria. He also revealed Iranian bases
where UAVs are based in Chabahar and Qeshm in Iran.
This comes in the wake of revelations in September about Iran training
drone operators. At the time he said that “Iran is training militias
from Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria to employ advanced UAVs, in a base
The Iranian drone threat has been around for many years. In 2019 the
Islamic Republic used drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi
Arabia’s massive Abqaiq energy facility. Iran transferred drone
technology to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, to Hamas, the Shi’ite militias
in Iraq, and also to Hezbollah.
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Iranian drones have entered Israeli airspace at least twice: in February
2018 when one flew from T-4 base in Syria to an area near Beit She’an
and in May 2021 when a drone was launched from Iraq and flew over Syria
also to an area near Beit She’an. Israel shot these drones down.
Iran used drones to attack a ship in the Gulf of Oman in July, killing
two crew members. It has used them in Syria against ISIS, and in Iraq to
threaten US forces. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have attacked US
forces at facilities in Erbil several times this year.
Iran also used drones to strike at US forces in the Tanf garrison in
Syria. Recent reports in US media claimed that the attack was an Iranian
attempt to respond to Israeli airstrikes by attacking the US. For Iran,
America and Israel are major adversaries.
Benny Gantz speaks about Iran at the World Summit on Counter-Terrorism
(credit: ANNA AHRONHEIM)
ALL OF THIS is pointing in the same direction: Iran wants to use drones
to target Israel, the US, Saudi Arabia and other countries. It is also
increasingly relying on drones as its major weapon. This is a shift from
focusing on ballistic missiles and precision-guided munitions. It is a
shift in technology and can also be a shift in precision and lethality.
Drones are different than missiles. They don’t fly on an arc and so that
means they can be difficult to detect and kill. Drones are also
different than cruise missiles because they can hover, monitor and
return to base, or loiter over a target.
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In Gantz’s speech on Tuesday, he singled out Shahed type UAVs, which he
said were being used to carry out “maritime attacks,” apparently from
Qeshm Island in southern Iran. "Iran is also operating outside the
region, transferring oil and weapons to Venezuela, operating its Quds
Forces in South America and trying to infiltrate its influence into
“Iranian terrorism is exported under the directive of [supreme leader
Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei and the regime’s top leaders,” he said. “One of
their key tools is UAVs – a precise weapon that can reach strategic
targets within thousands of kilometers. As such, this capability is
already endangering Sunni countries, international forces in the Middle
East and countries in Europe and Africa.”
He also mentioned T-4 base in Syria, a base in the desert near Palmyra.
This is the same base Iran sent a drone from in February 2018 to target
It is also the base that it allegedly tried to transfer 3rd Khordad air
defenses to in April 2018. The same system was used by Tehran to shoot
down a US Global Hawk drone off the coast of Iran in June 2019. The air
defense system could be a threat to the US and Israel. In October 2021
more reports emerged that the Islamic Republic wanted to move air
defenses to Syria.
Gantz has said that Tehran used a Shahed 141 drone in the February 2018
incident. “Iran not only uses UAVs to attack, but also to deliver
weapons to its proxies.”
The fact that Iranian drones might be able to deliver weapons appears to
be a new revelation. While it was known Iran has transferred technology
regarding drones, trained operators and moved parts such as engines or
gyroscopes via sea and land to proxies, the transfer of a weapon using a
drone is a new threat.
THE IRANIAN drone threat is complex. Iran has a number of classes of
drones that it has developed over the years. The Shahed series includes
the 149, nicknamed “Gaza,” and the 129, which are modeled on the US
Predator and Reaper drones. Newsweek has also mentioned a Shahed 136
that Iran may have moved to Yemen in January. There is also the Shahed
171 Simorgh, which is a copy of the US Sentinel flying wing spy drone.
There are also Iranian Mohajer drones whose origins go back to the
1980s. Some of these have a twin tail and are used for surveillance.
There is also the Ababil family of drones, which includes the kamikaze
drones that have become popular in Yemen and now among Hamas.
Iranian drones have been exported or copied by Iranian proxies and
renamed. Hamas uses the Shehab drone, launched from a kind of catapult.
The Houthis used the Qasef and Samad kamikaze drones to carry out
precision attacks. Iraqi militias use the Sahab.
What matters in Iran’s drone operations is that it relies on this weapon
as a kind of instant air force. Iran can’t afford new warplanes and it
is under sanctions. Drones give Iran plausible deniability to carry out
attacks because it is not always easy to prove that it carried out the
operations, even if you find pieces of the drone. Drones can also be
used to harass ships and make it difficult for adversaries to put air
defenses everywhere against them. The increased warnings in Israel about
the Iran drone threat is part of wider regional tensions.
However, the fact that Iran appears to be spreading this weapon system
everywhere, from Syria to Yemen, represents a new method of how Iran
fights wars. Tehran also apparently tries to innovate the way drones can
be used as threats. That means US defense officials, such as those
within Central Command, were right to warn about the Iran drone threat.
Now they and other partners in the region, such as Israel, will have to
increasingly confront this threat.
Iran used to brag often about its drones. Now that Israel is
highlighting this issue and US officials are mentioning it, Tehran has
grown more circumspect. Nevertheless, it is clear that Iran is now
training more operators and trying to standardize production more,
rather than just brag about exotic new drones that it created by copying
ones built in other countries. Iran now wants to innovate for itself.
Tags Benny Gantz Iran drone attack drone
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