In the past decade, Iran has made significant achievements in the drone technology and turned into a leading country in this sphere. The Islamic Republic’s defense sector has designed and developed a wide variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), ranging from hand-launched models to MALE-class drones with the likes of Shahed-129 or even versions of flying wing unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as Shahed-191. The Iranian Armed Forces largely benefit from domestically-built drones in their surveillance patrols and counter-terrorism or border guard operations, footage of which has been released on numerous occasions.
However, the main factor that widened the technological gab between Iran and other countries such as the US (and recently Turkey) was a lack of interconnected ISR networks, data links, as well as modern Web-based combat capabilities, in a way that they would be compatible with modern battlefields of the future. The flaw, however, did not go unnoticed by Iranian military commanders. In recent years, serious efforts have been made to overcome the weakness, which reached a peak earlier this year.
In a first striking measure in this arena, Iranian drones took part in a 2015 reconnaissance mission that led to the killing in Syria of Zahran Alloush, the ringleader of a dangerous terror group calling itself ‘Jaish al-Islam.’ Countless videos had emerged of Alloush and the notorious Takfiri outfit under his watch brutally killing, beheading and mutilating civilians in the Arab country. He and his fellow militants were mainly operating among the civilian population in residential areas of southern Syria and on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, making it extremely difficult to spot him. Meanwhile, heavy clashes with members of the terror group, which were underway back then in the densely-populated urban areas, were causing numerous fatalities among both Syrian civilians and military forces
In December 2019, however, news came of a game-changer in Syria’s counter-terrorism battles, which set the stage for the elimination of more terrorist groups not only in the war-ravaged country but the entire Middle East region. Alloush died in a joint operation by the air forces of Iran and Russia. During the mission Iran’s drones were tasked with locating the hideout of Alloush and a number of other members of the terror group besides virtually keeping the operation zone under surveillance, while Russian fighter jets bombed the site and took out the terrorists holed up there.
However, given the fact the operation was carried out jointly by Iran and Russia, not all the achievements of the mission can be attributed to the operational capabilities of the Iranian forces. Other examples were thus needed for a sound judgment of the ISR capabilities of Iran’s drones.
In July 2019, terrorist groups based in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region conducted a series of sabotage operations in attempt to destabilize the Islamic Republic’s western borders. In response, Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) carried out a security operation, which put on display a number of never-before-seen combat capabilities of the country’s Armed Forces. That operation saw Iranian drones create a surveillance-reconnaissance network over the regions that served at the terrorists’ strongholds, using radar and electro-optical sensors to detect their hideouts. The drones would then send back the data they had collected to the command center. Target acquisition was as also a task of the drones, which used laser pointers to pave the way for the IRGC’s shells to hit home. The achievements were accurate strikes, one bullet for one target, as well as heavy losses and fatalities on the camp of the terrorists.
Even though the military attack displayed the abilities of Iran’s Armed Forces, it was still far from the type of missions, in which a strategic target — such as the hideout of a terrorist commander — is located on the back of data gathering tasks in addition to reconnaissance, eavesdropping and signals intelligence (SigInt) operations in the depth of the enemy zone with the goal of spotting a single strategically-significant target among tens or even hundreds of individuals of lesser importance.
In recent months, several reports emerged in media, which were indicative of notable progress in the Iranian Armed Forces’ military power. One of the reports concerned the killing of one of the most capable and widely known operators of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) serving terrorist outfits in Syria. Maher Kojak — nicknamed ‘the TOW sniper’ — was killed aboard a moving car in the Sahl al-Ghab region of Idlib Province, which came under attack by an armed Iranian unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) armed with guided munitions. Kojak was one of the most skilled and most experienced ATGM operators, who had more than 150 successful hunts in his record. The operation that eliminated Kojak — which was conducted in a vast area — was more surgical and of a higher grade compared to the one against terrorists based in Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
Soon afterwards, the achievement was followed by a more notable one, which showed off the Iranian drones’ dazzling capabilities in surgical operations within the depth of enemy regions. In early May, Hisham Abu Ahmad, a senior commander of the Takfiri Jabhat Tahrir al-Sham terror group, was tracked down and killed by Iranian drones while he was driving a car in the Jabal al-Zawiya region of Syria’s Idlib Province. Aside from the technical capabilities that enabled locking the car, which was moving at a high speed on a suburban road, what actually stood out in that operation was the brilliant intelligence gathering and target acquisition skills of the operating forces. Expert analysis of the footage released of the operation zone suggests Iranian Mohajer-6 drones based in the Hama airport were involved in the mission.
Meanwhile, Turkey — which has been providing military support to certain terror groups in Idlib and has unlawfully occupied parts of northern Syria — has carried out a series of remarkable drone operations over the past months both in Syria and Libya in North Africa. The most significant accomplishment of Turkey in those raids has been destroying Russian-made short-range Pantsir anti-aircraft artillery systems, which fully neutralized all the publicity that those systems had received.
Reports coming of northern Syria indicate that a new outbreak of fighting is on the horizon in those regions given the increased military activities and numerous ceasefire violations there, particularly on the part of Turkey-backed militant groups. The indirect confrontation between Iran and Turkey — both enjoying great capabilities in the drone sector — is expected to become a focus of attention for military experts from around the world.