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The dangers of Iranian drones in Ukraine

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The Russian army has attacked several Ukrainian cities with Iranian drones in recent weeks. The White House has confirmed that Iran has supplied Russia with dozens of drones and has more on the way – 2,400, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – and has operators deployed with the Russian military in Crimea. The use of Iranian drones in Ukraine has raised concerns about deepening Iranian-Russian ties and the maturity of Iran’s drone program. But for Iran, Ukraine serves as another battleground to test its drone fleet live against defensive systems provided by the United States and NATO.

Tehran has been firmly on the side of the Kremlin since the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is partly due to the punitive sanctions regime that weighs heavily on both economies, and partly due to a common interest in weakening the United States and NATO. But the nature of Iran’s support changed when Tehran supplied drones and then began training Russian forces in their use. Reports of the deal surfaced in mid-summer, and by August Iranian drones were in Ukraine. The precise terms remain unclear, but Iranian drones offset Russian air force surveillance requirements and could fill rapidly depleting missile stocks. For Iran, the deal generates money or pays off a debt – but more importantly, puts its drones in another theater.

Drones already provide Iranian forces and regional proxies with critical capabilities, including aerial surveillance and short- and long-range strikes. Their small size makes them difficult to see on radar and they are hard to hit as they fly low and slow, exploiting a gap in defense systems. Some drones function as precision munitions like the Shahed-136, which has earned the nickname “kamikaze” drone. Although individual drones carry a relatively small payload, drone swarm technology, which the Iranian military introduced in late 2021, can combine their firepower. The mobile truck-mounted launchers of the Shahed-136 present detection challenges similar to those of the Iraqi Scud launchers in the first Gulf War. Additionally, Iran sources drone components from off-the-shelf engines and other dual-use technologies, complicating efforts to prevent parts sourcing. Indeed, Tehran has called drones “a main pillar of future wars” and asserted that they will play an increasingly important role in its military posture.

The advancement of the Iranian drone threat should come as no surprise. While Iranian military drills and reports can swell capabilities, Iranian drones have proven their worth in active conflict. Yemen’s Houthis began using Iranian-made drones in 2016. They used a short-range drone to target Patriot air defense systems in the country, disabling them before firing missiles at the scene. They have also used these drones for cross-border attacks on Saudi military and oil infrastructure. Iran has introduced longer-range designs which the Houthis have tested against Saudi targets, and the first known Shahed-136 surfaced in Yemen in September 2020. Houthi-launched drones and missiles probe air defenses Saudi Arabia, primarily Patriot air defense systems, to reveal vulnerabilities which they can then exploit. The performance of Iranian drones in the conflict in Yemen has almost certainly trickled down to future development rounds.

This feedback cycle makes Russia’s use of Iranian drone technology worrisome. The drones themselves are unlikely to lead to strategic changes in the war in Ukraine. The Russian military is attacking civilian targets and infrastructure with drones to break the will of the Ukrainian people, but these attacks appear to have only hardened Ukrainians further to Russian brutality. The Ukrainian army shoots down more than 70% of Shahed-136 drones, using anti-drone techniques developed on the fly. Defensive layers include radar to identify potential drone threats, patrolling fighter jets, ground-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and even machine gun fire. The United States and NATO have provided Ukraine with anti-drone systems, including the mobile VAMPIRE system, to help defend against Russian attacks.

While the United States and NATO will reap the benefits of the Ukrainian military’s experience, so will Iran. Iranians operating drones from Crimea have a front-row seat and can report which drone attacks have penetrated which defenses and where gaps may exist in defense systems. The next generation of Iranian drones will be that much harder to stop.

The variety of ways the Ukrainian military has thwarted Russian drone attacks speaks to the array of defenses at its disposal. But it also speaks to the ad hoc nature of the response, exposing vulnerabilities to increasingly sophisticated – and field-tested – Iranian technology and reveals an asymmetry in defense against the threat. Scrambling fighter jets to shoot down drones like the US did in September is not a sustainable response. Nor, as the Saudis have learned, fires million-dollar Patriot missiles.

The United States and NATO must commit to advancing their anti-drone capabilities and slowing Iran’s drone program. The DOD’s first steps in developing a strategy and the technologies to support it are positive, but still insufficient as modern warfare moves faster than defense procurement cycles. Congress could help. Funding military efforts to deal with this growing threat is one way. Another focuses on Iran’s drone supply network and those who operate the drones. Sanctioning entities within this network will make it more difficult for Iran to obtain the necessary components. The same goes for ensuring that the competent authorities to attack the production cycle through cyber or other means are in place.

The threat from Iranian drones is growing and it’s only a matter of time before the US military, not the Ukrainians, needs to defend against it.

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute and an advisor to its Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman. Cleary Waldo, a master’s candidate in Georgetown University’s Security Studies program, contributed to this article.