15/3/2014 Tal Inbar - IsraelDefense
The tendency to regard reports of modern Iranian-made weapon systems as "merely a whim and PR spectacle" notwithstanding, the Iranian UAV industry succeeds in developing vehicles that are worthy of more serious consideration.
Observers of formal Iranian reports dealing with the development of various weapon systems have been familiar, for years now, with the ritual where various weapons are presented to senior officials, normally in the presence of the Iranian Defense Minister, who has the honor of unveiling “the world’s best and most advanced” weapon systems, as they are normally introduced. Knowledgeable authorities in the field of ordnance, platforms and weapon systems, upon carefully examining the images distributed by the various Iranian news agencies, often find themselves chuckling in the face of non-operational systems.
Do the armed forces of Iran rely on weapon systems made of fiberglass and sheet-metal? Apparently, various journalistic sources (worldwide as well as in Israel) tend to dismiss the Iranian presentations as a capricious whim of the Iranian regime or as a spectacle put on for the benefit of the masses of the Iranian people, who are not fully familiar with the intricacies and secrets of the trade.
Over the years, we have become accustomed to seeing tanks mobilized on trailers, old missiles repainted over and over again, and various other outdated items or mock-ups. It would seem, however, that with regard to very few categories, the Iranian presentations are not misrepresentations. This applies, for example, to Iran’s heavy missiles and satellite launchers. Recently, another category of Iranian products has joined the realm of “real stuff” rather than just a spectacle – Unmanned Airborne Vehicles.
In July 2006, during the second Lebanon war, UAVs operated by Hezbollah in Lebanon entered Israel’s airspace. These UAVs, shot down over Israeli territory, were identified by the media as Ababil (“swallow”) UAVs and their technical quality was rather poor. Over the years, Iran presented an extensive range of UAVs at exhibitions, military exercises and through various official publications.
Some of the Iranian developments make one wonder. One example that comes to mind is the Unmanned Combat Airborne Vehicle designated Karrar (“striker”): this turbojet UAV carries unguided GP bombs but does not have even a rudimentary surveillance system. Another example was the public introduction of a UAV fitted with an oversized canopy designed to accommodate a satellite communication system (like similar western vehicles) – while Iran has no communication satellites of its own, and relying on commercial communication satellites for communicating with an operational vehicle of this type appears questionable at best. Many of the experts who evaluated the Iranian capabilities in the field of UAVs tended to remain unimpressed. Apparently, however, the Iranian manufacturing capabilities in the field of UAVs have undergone a substantial change recently, and some of the vehicles unveiled by the Islamic Republic seem fairly advanced, although they tend to resemble western vehicles generally and Israel-made UAVs in particular.
Iran’s latest developments in the field of UAVs are based in part on direct copying of foreign UAVs that had crashed in Iranian territory and were subsequently salvaged, as in the case of the small, tactical ScanEagle UAV built by Boeing (through its subsidiary Insitu), which evolved in Iran into the Yassir UAV. An analysis of various images and video clips distributed by the Iranians has shown that an Iranian facility manufactures copies of the original UAV, and many dozens of UAVs were seen at the facility in various assembly stages. A close examination of the materials released by Iran revealed that the actual building of the Iranian UAV conforms to much higher quality standards than the cruder and more familiar UAVs, including those employed in the skies over Syria – a fact that signifies an improvement in the work and assembly procedures of aerial platforms made from composite materials. One bit of information that has not been clarified until now involves the source supplying the engines for these UAVs – that and the quality characteristics of the payload. It may be assumed, with a high degree of probability, that external resemblance, regardless of how high the quality of the copying has been, cannot necessarily indicate equally high quality standards of the avionics and surveillance systems. This UAV has two configurations that differ in their tail sections.
In October 2013, a Yassir UAV was presented to a Russian military delegation visiting Tehran as a gesture of goodwill, and possibly as an act of defiance toward the USA. In November 2013, clips filmed in Syria began to crop up on the web, showing an airborne Yassir UAV in the service of the Assad regime. Photographs of such vehicles that had crashed or were shot down and subsequently presented to the media by rebel organizations indicate with certainty that the vehicle in question is the Iranian-made UAV. Another interesting UAV presented by Iran is the Shahed-129 (“eye witness”) UAV, defined as a Medium-Altitude, Long-Endurance (MALE) UAV. This UAV was introduced to the world in 2012, and resembles the Elbit System Hermes-450 UAV made in Israel. The vehicle was unveiled initially through a series of rather blurred clips, with no breakdown of its capabilities. In September 2013, during the visit of senior Iranian officials at the plant that manufactures this UAV, additional information was made available. Of particular interest was the fact that this UAV is armed. The ordnance it carries looks like TOW antitank missiles, probably with a laser guidance head. The configuration in which the missiles were presented – carried under the wings of the UAV – was a departure from standard operational installation (which requires canisters), but it was obvious that the two armament suspension points under the wings of the UAV carried four missiles. Photographs enable a close examination of the payload carried by this UAV, which appears to be an industry standard product containing a stabilized camera with day and night channels, and possibly also a system for guiding precision guided munitions. A relatively advanced airborne vehicle, possessing a reasonable carrying capacity and an endurance of twenty hours or more constitutes a major breakthrough as far as Iran’s UAV capabilities are concerned. The operational implication for Israel is fairly obvious and presents a challenge to the Israeli air defense systems. Penetration by a single UAV from Lebanon during peacetime, against which IAF fighters may be scrambled to engage and shoot down the enemy UAV is not the same as the ‘trickling’ of numerous vehicles during an all-out confrontation, during which massive amounts of rockets are also launched into Israel. The status picture of the sky that Israel should assemble, as well as the advance identification required, present complex challenges. It should be stressed, however, that the damage sustained by the State of Israel thus far as a result of penetrating enemy UAVs was mainly a damage to morale, and the Israeli public perceives such incidents as serious and even as “failures”.
The latest innovation presented by Iran, for now (November 2013), is the Fotros UAV, defined by Iranian spokesmen as a “strategic” vehicle. It is a large UAV with a central fuselage and twin-boom configuration and a wingspan of about 15 meters. Its endurance is up to 30 hours, its official service ceiling is up to 25,000 feet and its range is 2,000 kilometers. If these performance characteristics, officially presented by Iran, are reliable, then for the first time, Iran possesses an indigenous UAV capable of flying from Iran to Israel. The UAV was presented in an armed configuration, carrying missiles that resemble the US-made AGM-114 Hellfire antitank missiles. It is unknown whether Iran actually possesses real missiles of the type described above. The resemblance between the Iranian Fotros UAV and the IAI Heron UAV made in Israel was clearly visible, and there is no doubt that the Iranian engineers were “inspired” by the Israeli UAV. One should not rule out the possibility that in their configuration selection considerations the Iranians did not just want to rely on successful and proven designs, but also attempted to reach a high degree of visual resemblance that would make it difficult to identify their UAVs as hostile, thereby improving their survivability should they be employed over Israel. In conclusion, it appears that the Iranian UAV industry has undergone a substantial transformation in recent years, as it currently presents products that are more advanced than those presented in the past. The UAVs we currently see in Iran are employed, in part, in various areas of conflict (Syria, Sudan) and are also being delivered to Hezbollah.
The Israeli defense establishment should pay heed and prepare to deal with these threats well in advance.
The writer is the head of the Space Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies