Iran’s New Drone Is a Twin-Engine Bomber
But it’s probably unreliable
Every year during the last week of December, the Iranian government celebrates National Research Week. As this is Iran—where there’s a paucity of civilian scientific research—the week is almost completely dedicated to military achievements.
The same was true for 2014’s exhibition. Amid a torrent of propaganda footage, the state-owned Iranian Aviation Industries revealed a new jet-powered drone—one likely designed for combat.
The company didn’t divulge any of the drone’s characteristics or specifications. The only notion of its existence was brief, grainy footage taken during a flight test, a moment of which is seen above.
But the footage reveals a few details about the unmanned aircraft. The drone has twin jet engines—an unusual arrangement for modern unmanned aerial vehicles.
Two engines require additional subsystems to keep the drone airborne, and it makes the aircraft more expensive. The engines have considerable space between them—resembling the central canal on the twin-engine F-14 Tomcat.
This could be extra room for weapons without causing excessive drag on the airframe.
Finally, the drone has very small wings, suggesting that it relies on high speeds and its peculiar shape to produce lift. This feature likely reduces the drone’s flight time, essential for reconnaissance UAVs.
So if it’s not a surveillance drone, then what is it? Tehran might have designed the vehicle for attack missions—which corresponds with recent trends in the Iranian defense industry toward heavily-armed, fast drones.
Three months ago, Iran introduced several new air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions for its previously-revealed, single-engine Karar drone.
The new weapons included an air-to-air missile based on Chinese HQ-7, which Tehran produces under license. This new, unnamed missile uses a thermal seeker and fewer control surfaces compared to the HQ-7, which uses radio command guidance. The missile has a range between 12 to 20 kilometers and a speed of Mach 2.7.
The other weapon revealed for Karar was the Shafagh air-to-ground missile. With a range of 12 kilometers, Shafagh can penetrate 1,500-millimeters of rolled steel armor.
We previously knew Karar could carry 500-pound guided bombs and two C-705 missiles. While Karar could serve in a multi-role configuration to attack field targets such as light structures and vehicles, the new drone might provide heavy assault capabilities against command-and-control infrastructure and other strategic sites.
Attack drones are a smart choice for a poor country. Iran’s two air forces have proven to be largely ineffective in the ongoing conflict in Iraq.
Compared to manned fighter jets, drones cost a lot less to replace, and they don’t need extensive pilot training and maintenance. Drones can also carry out swarm attacks—launching dozens of networked machines at a single foe—which significantly boosts the chances of success against well-defended strategic targets.
But Iran faces substantial technological challenges before it forms an effective attack drone fleet.
Tehran knows how to get them off the ground—but it’s still working on how to keep the machines in the air.
The most important challenge is building secure and sustainable communications systems. As Iran doesn’t have access to satellite networks, it has faced serious problems maintaining contact with its drones.
Some observers report at least 50 medium-size drone losses in past two years.
To be sure, Iran does successfully use drones, balloons and relay posts. For instance, Iranian drones made reconnaissance flights over the Syrian city of Deir Al Zour, at least 200 kilometers from Iranian operating bases in the country.
But in early January, an Iranian Mohajer-4B drone crashed in Deir Al Zour — a hint the drone’s intermediate relay systems might be unreliable.
The communication challenges are even more crucial in strike missions. The drone has to correctly identify and hit its target—and in some cases, provide post-strike assessments. Unless Iran overcomes its technological challenges, the new drone program will not likely succeed.