Iran’s Air Defense Drones Probably Aren’t Very Good at Air Defense
Air guard robots appear to be targets and propaganda
Iran’s military is assigning a new and unorthodox mission to its fast-expanding fleet of aerial drones—air defense. That is, engaging enemy planes from the air.
Now, whether Tehran’s robots can actually do that job is an open question. The world’s other military drone operators have been reluctant to assign such a difficult task to unmanned aircraft.
Indeed, it’s likely Iran’s air-defense drones are mostly targets … or merely propaganda.
Iran’s armed forces have been using drones since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Tehran’s Air Defense Force, however, is a relative newcomer to unmanned technologies.
The Air Defense Force stood up in 2009 to help defend a handful of strategic sites from foreign air power—a nod to the growing tension over Iran’s nuclear program and the looming threat of Western air strikes.
Officially, the Air Defense Force didn’t announce its move into unmanned technologies until three years later, when Brig. Gen. Farzad Esmaili—the ADF commander—told reporters covering the 2012 National Day of Air Defense that he planned to integrate drones into his force.
The Hazem drone, announced in October 2012, became the first public symbol of that move. Although Esmaili insisted that the Hazem drone was meant “for specific and strategic goals,” the aircraft is actually a modest tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.
Closeups of the rarely-seen drone, taken during an Air Defense Force photo op in November, show that the Hazem II—there are three versions so far—has a small propeller in the nose powered by what appears to be a single cylinder engine.
The airframe is roughly the size of a hobby plane. Meaning it pretty much is a hobby plane.
The delta-wing aircraft started out as a target drone — simple cannon fodder for Iran’s air defense missiles and artillery during training exercises. More recently, the Air Defense Force has tried to add a curious mission to its portfolio — propaganda.
During the Mohammed Rasulullah war games in late December, a Hazem simulated spreading propaganda leaflets on a hypothetical enemy.
To be sure, propaganda won’t do much to stop the foreign fighters, bombers and drones that Iranian officials worry might attack its strategic sites. And so the Air Defense Force has tried to augment its arsenal of surface-to-air missiles with a drone called the Sarir that purportedly totes small air-to-air missiles.
Like the Hazem, the Sarir is a relatively small drone—but has propellers at both the front and rear of its fuselage. Matt Schroeder, an expert on small arms and missiles at the Small Arms Surveys, says Sarir’s twin rockets, fixed to a hardpoint on each wing, are similar to the Chinese QW-1M shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile.
Iran may produce its own version of the QW-1M, according to Schroeder.
Unconventional though the Sarir may be, the concept of attaching shoulder-fired missiles to an aircraft isn’t unheard of. The U.S. once equipped the Predator with a Stinger missile, albeit to little effect.
American Apache helicopters are also capable of firing the air-to-air version of the Stinger.
The Sarir could, in fact, be vaporware. Thus far, the drone has only appeared in public once, on a parade float during the April 2013 National Army Day. The word “experimental” was clearly stenciled in English on its side, putting a question mark on Esmaili’s claims that the UAV had gone into “mass production.”
Adding to the mystery, Iran’s Defense Ministry unveiled another rocket-toting drone, the Saedegh, back in September. Despite the new name, Saedegh is a just an old Mohajer-4 with two shoulder-fired missiles attached to its wings that are similar in appearance to Iran’s homemade Misagh-1, according to Schroeder.
In contrast to Sarir’s scant public footprint, Iranian authorities released footage of the Saedegh in flight successfully firing its missile at a target.
Iranian officials are mum about which armed service will receive the Saedegh, but it would seem to be a logical fit for the Air Defense Force. The service already has at least one Mohajer-4 in its inventory.
But it’s the humble target drone, in its various forms, that comprises the bulk of the Air Defense Force’s UAV fleet—and seems likelier to be of practical use than its exotic cousins.
The Saeqeh, another delta-wing target drone common to other services in Iran’s armed forces, occasionally serves as a target. The Air Defense Force has also used Ababil-II drones, an early iteration from Iran’s Ababil series of robots, to test its Shalamcheh missiles.
These are in addition to a number of smaller, largely unremarkable hobbyist-style drones that make appearances at the Air Defense Force’s public events.
The most sophisticated target drone in the command’s inventory—that we know of—is the Kian. As some observers have pointed out, this UAV bears a strong resemblance to the the turbojet-powered U.S. MQM-107A target drone, which Washington exported to Tehran during the Shah’s reign.
Moreover, an Iranian-flagged UAV with a strong resemblance to the Kian has been seen in pictures with “MQM-107A” stenciled on the side along with “VSTT,” the abbreviation for the U.S. Army’s Variable Speed Training Target program that birthed the MQM-107.
Iran has maintained its fleet of vintage U.S. target drones for years and kept them in service even today—occasionally forgetting to paint over the original American markings. Some observers believe Iranian engineers used the MQM-107 as a basis for the Karrar bomber drone.
While the Karrar has made appearances at parades over the years, Iran’s Air Defense Force claimed to have tested an aerial robot called Kian for the first time against its Shalamech air-defense missiles during the December exercises, although there are no pictures or video to prove it.
Iranian propagandists are eager to inflate both the role of drones in warfare and Iran’s ability to produce them.
So it only makes sense that they would feature in the Air Defense Force’s chest-thumping displays of its ability to keep American and Israeli warplanes out of Iranian skies.
But ultimately, the greatest value of Iran’s air-defense drones likely lies in their ability to augment the other systems the country’s sky guardians already have—providing target practice for the patchwork of S-200s and TOR M-1 surface-to-air missiles and other dated air-defense systems.