Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iran‘s Combat Drones in Ukraine War, a New Market

Iran‘s Combat Drones
A Ukrainian serviceman launches a drone in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on October 30, 2022, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic.

After a substantial Russian army withdrawal prior to the Ukrainian advance in the north and east of the nation, Moscow had deployed a new tactic in an effort to alleviate the impact from the Ukrainian forces’ attacks.

The Russian military began attacking Ukrainian infrastructure, particularly those tied to military supply lines and energy sources, on a regular basis using massive swarms of drones.

The significance of these Russian counterattacks lies in the fact that they targeted numerous Ukrainian towns and cities, including those far from the front lines. This was made feasible by the use of small, low-cost unmanned drones that can fly at low altitudes without being detected by radars, enabling them to evade air defense systems.

In addition, these drones were laden with explosives that allowed the aircraft to detonate near Ukrainian targets, hence the nickname “kamikaze attacks.” Furthermore, Ukrainian forces were unable to successfully monitor these drones since the Russians launched them in large swarms.

Iran‘s involvement in the conflict—particularly its provision of Russia with Iranian drones—is what led to this development in the Ukraine War. Previously in the battle, Russia had employed a variety of drone models, but it wasn’t until Iran boosted its unmanned aerial vehicles exports to Russia that Moscow started to utilize massive swarms in several simultaneous operations.

Additionally, American and European intelligence revealed that Iran sent teams of experts to Crimea concurrently with these strikes in October to train and advise the Russian military on how to employ Iranian drones. This intelligence also indicated that in recent weeks, Iran activated its supply lines toward Russia, providing it with hundreds of drones that could be used as suicide bombers.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military, which was able to bring down and analyze a number of the drones, has consistently asserted its conviction that they were made in Iran. Due to Ukraine’s release of photos of the Iranian aircraft employed in the assaults, the international community can now hold Iran accountable its involvement.

Marketing and testing weapons in Ukraine

Iran is only one of many nations that has raced to test the potency of its weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine before commercializing them internationally.

The Bayraktar drone, for example, is made by the Turkish company Baykar, which recently established a drone production facility in Ukraine in order to easily provide the military of that nation with drones. Recently, Turkey has been showcasing videos that demonstrate the efficiency of these drones on the battlefield in Ukraine, as well as their capacity to strike a variety of targets, including soldiers, permanent fortifications, armored vehicles, and other types of threats.

Turkey reaped the rewards of demonstrating its aircraft in the Ukrainian arena. The United Arab Emirates, for example, rushed to negotiate with Turkey for the purchase of some 120 Bayraktar-type UAVs, which were used by the Ukrainian army soon after Turkey made public its military venture. Saudi Arabia followed and launched talks with Baykar to set up a factory on Saudi territory, while Kuwait is preparing to sign a deal with Turkey to buy quantities of the Bayraktar aircraft.

Even Western nations have recently made public the types of weapons, including anti-armor, precision artillery, air defense systems, and other variants, that they supplied to the Ukrainian army. These nations were also eager to provide the media with information and evidence regarding the role played by each of their weapon types on the battlefield.

The objective of these nations are multidimensional. Not only were they actively promoting these weapons by displaying their efficiency, but were also closely examining how well they performed on the Ukrainian battlefield in order to identify their advantages and disadvantages as well as any potential deficiencies that should be addressed in future iterations.

It is evident that the swift advance of Ukrainian forces in the east and north of the nation brought much-needed attention to all military equipment, especially since the Ukrainians were able to prevail against Russian forces that outnumbered them.

Iran and the Shahed-136 drones

It is undeniable that Iran is engaged in the Ukraine conflict to pitch and test its drones in an effort to compete and grow its share of global military sales, much like Western nations and Turkey before them. Given the recent fame and popularity that the Bayraktar drone has had, at a time when Iran is attempting to promote its own drone models, it is important to note that Turkey is Iran’s main regional competitor in the drone industry.

As these aircraft were able to strike targets deep into Ukrainian territory that the Ukrainian military did not anticipate could be reached, the Shahed-136 aircraft stands out as the most notable type of drone that Iran has launched into the Ukrainian battlefield.

The capacity of such aircraft to move and effectively track targets, especially moving ones, had led Ukrainian army authorities to anticipate that their arrival in the theater of conflict would be a game-changer.

On 25 March, 2022, the Houthis employed a particular model of Iranian drone that sparked widespread interest when it was used to attack Aramco installations in Saudi Arabia. The drone caught the eye of military specialists at the time since it was designed as a suicide aircraft that could evade Saudi Arabia’s radars and strike the most critical objectives deep inside Saudi territory.

Iran has since been working to close lucrative deals to sell models of this drone, which explains its efforts today to market it on the ground in Ukraine by supplying the Russian army with quantities of the aircraft. In an effort to generate further attention, Tehran has also recently worked to demonstrate this drone in a number of operations inside Iran.

Challenging NATO’s defenses

Iran’s priority in entering the Ukrainian war arena was to test NATO’s defenses against its drones, to assess the strength of these defenses in the face of Iranian offensive capabilities. It can be said that in the initial stages, the Shahed-136 drone actually managed to achieve exceptional success against NATO air defense employed by the Ukrainian army. This marks a victory for Tehran.

However, the ultimate evaluation of the Shahed-136 drone’s capability against NATO defenses will have to wait until NATO supplies Ukraine with more air defenses in the days ahead. The implications of these advances for the balance of power between Russian and Ukrainian forces, as well as the reputation of the types of weapons supplied to the Ukrainian military, were certainly realized by NATO’s leadership in the wake of these drone attacks. NATO swiftly rushed to implement additional air defense systems designed to deal with such small, drones that are capable of flying at low altitudes.

As with all armed conflicts, the war in Ukraine is being profited from by a variety of peripheral parties, especially those involved in the sale and manufacture of weapons. Attaining these goals comes with a cost in the form of material losses and casualties brought on by reckless military testing. Russia’s use of Iranian drones during the Ukraine War, which resulted in the destruction of 30% of Ukraine’s power plants without obviously advancing any military objectives is an adequate example.

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