Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser for the United States, made an unexpected revelation earlier this month: Russia is purchasing hundreds of drones from Iran and will start training with them in the coming weeks.
It sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy book when a major U.S. foe sells a swarm of drones to a rival, but will this action provide Russia the advantage it needs to radically alter the trajectory of the conflict in Ukraine?
Despite all the drama, the acquisition of the drones might have more to do with desperation than conspiracy. Despite how concerned the Pentagon and American officials are about the cooperation of nations like Russia, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, and others, the nature of this agreement appears to be more indicative of Iranian opportunism and Russian desperation than the beginning of a significant Iran-Russian relationship.
Israel, Russia’s longtime drone ally, is separating itself from both sides of the fight while Russia’s domestic drone programme is subpar and its industry is having trouble replacing lost equipment. Russia is unlikely to purchase drones from U.S.-aligned manufacturers like Turkey, thus Iran is the only country with a domestic drone industry, an interest in proliferation, and no worry for political fallout.
Although sending hundreds of drones is worrying, the kind of drones delivered is very important.
Iran produces a wide range of drones, from tiny kamikaze drones to the massive strike vehicles that come to mind when most people think of drone warfare. Drones are “Iran’s most quickly growing air capability,” according to a 2019 assessment of the Iranian military by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. These drones can conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, fire weapons, or collide with a target and explode. Most lately, they’ve demonstrated the ability to fire drones from surface ships, increasing the range of their attacks.
The information in Sullivan’s statement offered some suggestions as to the types of drones Iran might be supplying. According to American authorities, in June, Iran displayed the Shahed-191 and the Shahed-129 to a Russian group. The 191 and 129 drones from Iran can conduct long-range reconnaissance (ISR) and fire bombs, with the latter mimicking the famed American MQ-1 Predator drone. This is in contrast to Iran’s basic Kamikaze drones, which collide with their target and detonate.
Iran sending its most powerful drones to Russia in large numbers would be the worst-case scenario for Ukraine, but it is more plausible that Tehran would choose to guard its newest systems and send more disposable platforms.
The U.S. release specifically noted that some of the drones were armed, similar to those that Iran provides to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have made unprecedented use of drones supplied by Iran to attack Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, assassinate politicians at public gatherings, and assault military sites in Yemen. The Ababil and Samad families, which both include ISR capabilities and kamikaze variations, are the main systems deployed by the Houthis, according to the UN. However, they are not as powerful as the Shahed-191 and 129, which can conduct ISR missions, fire ordnance, and return for reuse. It would not be challenging or dangerous for Tehran to supply the Houthis with these more affordable systems if Iran already produces them in big quantities.
The crucial question is if Iran’s drones are a sign that Russia is running low on drones of its own. Drones with long-range strike capabilities would enable Russia to pinpoint targets and adjust artillery fire in real time. Artillery is essential to Russia’s breakthrough. Some estimates place the number of Russian ISR drones, including the Orlan-10, lost at dozens. The question of whether the Iranian drones would live as long as the Orlans once in use is raised by the fact that they are no less resistant to Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems.
It’s also conceivable that the drones will support Russia’s long-range strike choices, enhancing the potency of their heavier armaments. The Houthis frequently assert that they utilise their drones in tandem with missiles, presumably to impede Saudi Arabia’s air defences. Russian Kamikaze drones don’t have enough of them and don’t have the range to reach targets far into Ukraine. The weakened air defences of Ukraine may have trouble with kamikaze drones, especially if they manage to cross the front line.
Overall, Ukraine has good reason to be concerned that Russia can now purchase additional drones from outside, but the amount of harm they can tactically inflict is limited, and they probably won’t have much of an impact strategically.
However, all bets may be off if Iran starts transferring more advanced UAVs, helps with the smuggling of components that Russia lacks, or even talks about selling additional stand-off weapons like missiles.