January 27, 2015: Strategy Page
In December 2014 Iran held military exercises in which it claimed it had converted one of its UAVs into a “suicide drone” and successfully tested it. The story behind this story is far more interesting. This suicide drone is actually a cruise missile and is based on what Iran claims is a copy of the American ScanEagle UAV. This is a low-tech, commercially available UAV that contains no classified components. In early 2013 Iran released photos of their new production facility producing copies of ScanEagle. But Iran did not present any of the completed “Yasir” (as they called their version of ScanEagle) UAVs. Iran could have built a ScanEagle clone without copying from one they had obtained (either from a crash or the black market). The ScanEagle assembly line picture could have simply been Photoshopped, a technique Iran has been caught using numerous times. The Iranian version was said to have a range of 200 kilometers max altitude of 2,900 meters and max endurance of eight hours. By replacing the surveillance equipment and much of the fuel with explosives Iran would have a short range (a hundred kilometers or so) cruise missile with over a 10 kg (over 22 pounds) of explosives that could, in theory, hit anything within range. That is if it can get past the air defenses. Most Western air defense systems have been upgraded to detect UAVs and low flying cruise missiles.
Actually, defenses against cruise missiles go back over 70 years. Cruise Missiles have been around for that long. The first one appeared during World War II as the German V-1 "Buzz Bomb". The British developed a number of countermeasures. It was the Israelis that began using TV-equipped UAVs in combat during the 1980s. At the same time it was the United States that reinvented the buzz bomb as the modern cruise missile in the 1980s. A decade later the Americans borrowed from the Israelis to create their own UAVs for surveillance.
Yasir first appeared in December 2012 when Iran insisted it had captured a U.S. Navy ScanEagle UAV and copied it. The U.S. said none of its ScanEagles were missing. Iran then released a photo of the captured ScanEagle. But the photo showed a ScanEagle without military markings that appeared to have been reassembled after a crash. The U.S. did reveal that several ScanEagles had been lost over the last few years (due to communications or mechanical failures) in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf and the wreckage was not recovered. This is where Iran might have obtained their ScanEagle (perhaps via fishermen who haulded it in and took it to the black market). In any event, stunts like this are mainly for raising morale among Iranian civilians depressed over economic problems. It doesn’t really matter what the U.S. says or does.
A ScanEagle weighs 19 kg (40 pounds), has a 3.2 meter (ten foot) wingspan, and uses day and night video cameras. This makes it easier for the UAV, flying over land or water, to spot small speed boats or individual vehicles. The commercial version of ScanEagle has been in service since the 1990s to help high seas fishing ships find schools of fish to go after. Cruising speed is 110 kilometers an hour. The ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight and fly as high as 5 kilometers (16,000 feet). The aircraft carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. The UAV can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ground controller. The ScanEagle is launched from a catapult and landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a 16 meter (fifty foot) pole. This makes it possible to operate the UAV from the helicopter pad on the stern (rear) of a warship or any open space on a seagoing fishing ship. Each ScanEagle costs about $100,000 and is still widely used by commercial fishing, ocean survey, and research ships, as well as military organizations in several countries. ScanEagle has been in military service since 2005.