Why Russia could turn to Iran for drones

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5 min read
02 August, 2022
Analysis: Iran has been a leading drone producer for decades despite international sanctions, with Russia needing to replace lost stockpiles during the invasion of Ukraine.

In early July, the White House said it believed that Russia was turning to Iran to acquire “hundreds” of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including weaponised drones.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said it was "unclear" whether Iran had delivered them yet but that Tehran was preparing to train Russian forces to use them.

Although Russian, as well as Iranian officials, denied that the issue of combat drones was discussed during Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Tehran, US officials maintain that such plans exist.

Sullivan said that Russian delegations had also visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice, where Iranian officials showcased their drones.

"The Russian ability to quickly supply their forces with an adequate number of UAVs of the quality and quantity needed for the Ukraine war is limited"

Russia needs drones

Russian forces have been losing drones in large quantities during its invasion of Ukraine, according to media reports, and are turning to foreign and regional partners for replacements.

Moscow especially lacks armed drones, such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, which has been employed successfully by Ukraine’s military.

Moreover, their own domestic production cannot keep up with ever-growing demand, especially given Russia’s limited capacity for producing armed UAVs.

“The Russian UAV is lagging behind that of the rest of the world, for reasons related to their air force’s negative view of unmanned aircraft - an attitude that was prevalent in Western air forces too until about a quarter a century ago,” Uzi Rubin, a defence engineer and analyst of missile systems in the Middle East, told The New Arab.

“The Russian ability to quickly supply their forces with an adequate number of UAVs of the quality and quantity needed for the Ukraine war is limited,” he added.

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Dr James Rogers, a fellow of the London School of Economics (LSE) and Special Advisor to the UK Parliament's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones and Modern Conflict, says that many reports indicate that Russia’s own drones – such as the Orlan 10 – have fulfilled important intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition roles in Ukraine.

The Orlan 10 is a medium-range, multi-purpose unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a range of between 120km and 600km from the launch station with an 18-hour flight time.

Nevertheless, “many drones have also been successfully countered and captured by Ukrainian forces, so Russia will be seeking to maintain (or even increase) its rate of drone deployment by purchasing Iranian drone technologies,” Rogers said.

Although Russia has been able to consolidate the frontline and make advances in southern and eastern Ukraine, relying on its numerically superior artillery, Ukraine has received new long-range artillery from the United States and NATO countries, as well as HIMARS mobile rocket launchers which have been used to destroy Russian ammunition depots near the frontline.

Now that the battle has evolved into an artillery duel, drones are even more important for reconnaissance and direct attacks. 

Since being supplied by the US and NATO with different types of drones, Russia is struggling to catch up. 

Why Russia could turn to Iran for drones
A protester in Madrid holds a placard with Russian President Vladimir Putin's face during a rally against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022. [Getty]

Iran as a drone superpower

In need of swiftly responding to changing dynamics on the frontlines of Ukraine, Russia’s rapprochement with Iran is not surprising.

“Russia's turn towards Iran rather than, say, Israel, from whom Russia has previously acquired UAS technology, points towards the effectiveness of sanctions and [an] unwillingness to export military materiel to Russia,” N.R. Jenzen-Jones, Director of Armament Research Services (ARES), told The New Arab.

The Russian request also confirms Iran as a drone superpower, with Tehran’s technology having been used in Iraq, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen, where the Houthi group has used it to attack targets in Saudi Arabia.

Iran has also supplied Venezuela, Ecuador, and several African states on a commercial basis.

While international sanctions have greatly hampered Tehran’s potential to buy or develop a costly air force that could match its regional Gulf rivals and Israel, it has instead focused on the development of indigenous combat drones.

"The Iranian drone program has been running since the late 1980s and has been incredibly active in terms of its use by a variety of non-state actors across the Middle East"

“Iranian drones are significantly less advanced than those of many Western countries, however, they will still offer an important capability boost to Russian forces, which lack significant quantities of unmanned aerial systems,” N.R. Jenzen-Jones said.

Other experts, such as Rubin, say Iran’s drones are competitive in the global market. “Iran's UAVs are as advanced as any western or Chinese product,” he said, adding that Moscow’s acquisition will largely fill a quantitative gap given Russia’s shortages.

Moreover, the Iranian drone program has been running since the late 1980s and has been incredibly active in terms of its use by a variety of non-state actors across the Middle East.

As such, Iranian drones are battle-tested systems, meaning that Tehran has both the experience and the know-how to aid Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

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While speculation is still rife, Jenzen-Jones believes that Iran is likely to export UAVs to Russia under the current circumstances. Tehran has employed relatively low-cost UAS in a variety of situations and is one of the few countries with an active industry of this type, he added.

Western media reports have so far speculated that Iran’s Mohajer-6 and Shahed-129 could be transferred to Russia.

The Qods Mohajer-6 entered serial production in February 2018, and is capable of carrying a multispectral surveillance payload and/or up to four precision-guided munitions, but some American sources have claimed it is ‘unsophisticated’.  

Rogers says the Iranian Ababil model of drones, specifically the Ababil-3, is the most likely option for Russia, as it fulfils a similar tactical role to the Orlan 10.

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Tehran's drone technology has been used in Iraq, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen, where the Houthi group has used it to attack targets in Saudi Arabia. [Getty]

In terms of bilateral ties, the possible acquisition of drones could open up a new chapter in Russia-Iran relations.

While Tehran and Moscow already had a close relationship due to both being partly outside of the international system and therefore needing mutual support, this new connection could bring them even closer. 

However, similar agreements, at least in the military field, seem unrealistic at present given that Russia is relatively well equipped except for UAVs.

Analysts like Rogers say that the main obstacle to future cooperation between both countries may well be a lack of trust, meaning that any drone transfer at this time would simply be a marriage of convenience.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence