On August 10, a US official told CNN that, in recent weeks, several Russian officials have been trained in Iran to use Iranian drones. The United States had announced that Russia planned to purchase drones from Iran as early as July. On July 11, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser to the President of the United States, stated that Iran is preparing to provide the Russian Federation with hundreds of drones, including armed drones, and that Tehran is going to train Russian forces in the use of drones. On July 15, Sullivan noted that Russian officials visited the Kashan Air Base near Tehran twice, to see the Iranian-made Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones. According to the American official, the Russian delegation’s first visit took place in June, and the second on July 5.
Russian officials have not commented on the matter, but on July 13 the Iranian side denied a possible shipment of drones to the Russian Federation. Moscow’s interest in Iranian drones may have increased considerably in the context of the war in Ukraine. The damage caused to the army by the Bayraktar TB2 drones showed the Russian military leadership and political elite the importance of drones on the battlefield. In recent years, the Russian defence industry has not seriously invested in the development of advanced drone prototypes. The drones in the Russian army’s inventory are not as effective as those produced by the Bayraktar company, or as the Iranian or American ones.
The Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 Iranian drones
Iran’s drone industry began to develop significantly after Tehran managed to capture an American RQ-170 Sentinel drone in December 2011. Since 2012, they have begun working on a drone similar to the American prototype captured a year earlier over its territory. After breaking the drone’s software encryption, Iranian engineers used reverse engineering processes and succeeded in replicating American technology. Thus, Iran developed its own drone prototypes. At the time, an Iranian defence official said that Russia and China had shown interest in acquiring information about the US drone. Since 2013, Iran began to produce the first drones based on the technology and model of American drones. That year, Iran gave the Russian Federation a copy of a United States drone (ScanEagle) to show that it could copy American technology. Therefore, Russia’s interest in Iranian drones can be traced back to almost a decade ago.
The Shahed-129 model is capable of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions and can strike fixed and mobile ground targets. The shape and size of this drone are identical to the American model MQ-1 Predator. The Shahed-129 drone has a flight autonomy of 24 hours, can reach an altitude of about 7,600 meters and can fly at a distance of up to 1,700 km from the command centre. At the same time, it can operate both during day and night, in any weather conditions and can carry four missiles weighing up to 400 kg. Shahed 129 has proven its effectiveness since 2015 in Syria and Yemen.
As for the Shahed-191 model, it is a copy of the American RQ-170 Sentinel model, but on a smaller scale. It can perform the same type of missions as the Shahed-129 model, but has an autonomy of only 4.5 hours and can fly at a distance of only 1500 meters from the command centre. The Shahed-191 can fly at an altitude of up to about 7,600 meters and can carry 2 missiles weighing a maximum of 100 kg. According to the manufacturer, this drone cannot be detected by radar.
Russia’s interest in Iranian drones
The Russian Federation would need these types of drones primarily to replace those lost during the war in Ukraine. In May, the British Ministry of Defence reported on its Twitter account that Russia had lost a significant number of drones in Ukraine, and Western sanctions are reducing its ability to produce more. It also noted that the insufficient number of drones will affect the military’s ability to obtain intelligence and conduct reconnaissance and surveillance missions. In addition, the Russian army needs more advanced drones, and Iranian drones are far more efficient than Russian ones. These drones would provide a tactical advantage to the Russian military, which is facing difficulties in advancing on the battlefield. At the same time, it could help Russia speed up the pace of its offensive in Ukraine.
These drones are also necessary for Moscow to be able to penetrate deep into Ukrainian territory, to strike various targets without the risk of losing fighter jets. The loss of a fighter jet is much more expensive than the loss of a drone, considering that, in addition to material losses, there are also human losses. Therefore, they could give Russia the ability to more easily identify Ukrainian military targets and use artillery to destroy them. This strategy was successfully used by the Ukrainian army, by using Bayraktar drones. One of Russia’s possible targets could be the HIMARS mobile artillery systems given by the United States to Ukraine in July. These systems caused serious damage to the Russian army.
The cooperation between the Russian Federation and Iran could strengthen further, given that Moscow faces problems in terms of replenishing its stockpiles of weapons and replacing destroyed military equipment, due to sanctions imposed by the West. Tehran could also provide Moscow with other types of combat equipment.
In a report by the British research centre Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), carried out in collaboration with Reuters and published in early August, it is stated that an important part of Russian combat equipment works with Western technology. After analysing 27 products of the Russian defence industry used in Ukraine, the RUSI report discovered 450 parts produced by Western companies in their composition. These parts (motors, cameras, processors, GPS transmitters and receivers, amplifiers) have been found in some types of missiles, missile systems, tanks, radio and satellite communication systems, electronic warfare systems and drones in the Russian military’s inventory. The parts came from companies in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Great Britain, Japan and South Korea, but most of them were made in the US.
The Russian Federation could therefore increase cooperation with Iran in the field of defence to try to reduce the negative effects of Western sanctions on this industry.