Iran sends its first shipment of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine


Russian cargo planes have quietly recovered the first of dozens of Iranian-made combat drones for use against Ukraine, US officials said, in a move that underscores the deepening ties between Moscow and Tehran while highlighting the Russia’s difficulties in supplying its overstretched army.

Transport planes left Iran on August 19 carrying at least two types of unmanned aerial vehicles, both capable of carrying munitions for attacks on radar, artillery and other military targets, according to the information collected by the United States and other spy agencies.

But while the weapons could provide a significant boost to Russia’s war effort against Ukraine, the transfer has been marred by technical issues, security officials from the United States and a allied government in talks. In early tests by the Russians, Iranian drones experienced numerous failures, officials said.

“There are a few bugs in the system,” said an Allied security official whose government closely monitored the transfer. The official agreed to discuss sensitive information on the condition that his identity and nationality are not revealed. “The Russians are not satisfied,” the official said.

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The initial delivery of the Mohajer-6 and Shahed series drones to Moscow would be the first installment of a planned transfer of hundreds of Iranian drones of various types, Biden administration officials said, also speaking under cover of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the material.

Iranian drones could help fill a crucial gap in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine. Russia, which has 1,500 to 2,000 military surveillance drones, has relatively few attack drones of the type capable of carrying out precision strikes against targets deep in enemy territory. Ukraine, by contrast, has used Turkish-made combat drones to wreak havoc on Russian armor, trucks and artillery since the early weeks of the conflict.

The Biden administration warned in July that Russia was preparing to acquire large numbers of Iranian drones to conduct air-to-ground attacks, electronic warfare and battlefield targeting in Ukraine.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported last week that Iran had started delivering the drones. But details of the transfer, including the types of drones provided and their allegedly poor performance so far, have not previously been reported.

In interviews, US and allied security officials said Russian planes flew into an Iranian military installation to pick up the drones for several days in mid-August. The Allied Security official said the initial delivery included two models of Shahed drones, the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191, as well as the Mohajer-6. All are considered to be among Iran’s high-end military drones, designed for both attack and surveillance.

The deal was negotiated over several months by a team led by Brig. General Seyed Hojjatollah Qureishi, head of the Iranian Defense Ministry’s supply and logistics division and Russian military attache in Tehran, the security official said. As part of the deal, Iranian technical experts traveled to Russia to help set up the systems, and Russian military officers underwent training in Iran, the official said.

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Iranian officials had responded indirectly to US claims about the imminent delivery of the drone. Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani last month acknowledged “Iranian and Russian technological cooperation” but said Tehran preferred a diplomatic settlement to the Ukrainian conflict. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, asked last month about the reported deal to acquire Iranian drones, said the Russian presidency had “no comment on it”.

While Iran has supplied military drones to proxy armed groups such as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, it has rarely, if ever, tested such models against the kinds of sophisticated electronic jamming and anti-aircraft systems used in Ukraine, it said. said Michael Knights, a military and security expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran has demonstrated the ability to launch “swarm” drone attacks – involving multiple suicide drones massed against a single target – and Western governments will be watching closely to see if Iranian drones can carry out such operations in a field of intensely contested battle, Knights said.

“These Iranian drones have never operated in a sophisticated air defense environment before,” Knights said. “The closest to that is with [Houthi strikes against] Saudi Arabia or against US bases in Iraq, and they generally haven’t done well. So I wouldn’t be surprised if in a more intense environment like Ukraine they have problems.

For Russia, the Ukraine conflict revealed the country’s inability to develop a range of combat drones similar to those used by the United States for two decades, experts say. “They understand they needed these drones yesterday in large quantities,” said Sam Bendett, a Russian military analyst at Virginia-based research group CNA.

And Russia really only has two countries it can turn to to “fill the capability gap” in combat drones: China and Iran. But China is deeply entangled in the global supply chain and does not want to supply combat drones because it would likely attract US sanctions, he said.

That leaves Iran, which is not equally exposed and whose capabilities are local, “that’s what the Russians are looking for,” Bendett said. “Iran is also an ally of Russia. So that’s the only real choice left. Iran represents a very interesting case of having a domestic industry that has grown in the midst of sanctions. And that’s a pretty robust capability.

The United States in June began supplying Ukraine with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, commonly known as HIMARS, which can launch multiple rockets with precision at Russian military targets nearly 50 miles away. The use of HIMARS enabled Ukraine to destroy Russian ammunition depots and logistical supplies far behind the front lines.

“The Russians have no way of limiting the damage that HIMARS is inflicting on them now,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, president of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank. “They hope the attack drones can help.”

Other NATO-supplied long-range artillery pieces, such as M777 howitzers capable of firing precision-guided shells, also added to Russia’s challenge, said Rob A. Lee, a Russian military expert. and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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“One of Russia’s biggest problems right now is that its air force can’t interdict things behind Ukrainian lines,” Lee said. “They don’t have a lot of long-range drones that can hit targets behind enemy lines. So they can’t prevent Ukraine from reinforcing its positions and getting supplies… And a lot of their drones are shot down or lost due to electronic warfare.

While Russia apparently seeks to increase domestic production of such drones, it is hampered by Western sanctions and export controls, which have halted the flow of semiconductor chips essential to the production of such weapons, said analysts.

“They rely on the black market, but the needs are vast,” Alperovitch said. “You need chips for everything from precision-guided missiles to planes to tanks, not to mention non-military items in their own domestic industries. So there is a high demand in Russia for chips, and if Russia can source drones made entirely in Iran, it doesn’t need to use its precious supply of black market chips to manufacture its own drones.

Analysts said the transfer of drones is unlikely to affect ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, which are taking place on a separate track and have a different goal: to eliminate Iran’s ability to manufacture quickly a nuclear bomb. But the consolidation of military ties between Iran and Russia is a worrying development for the United States and its allies, experts have said.

“The increasingly close alliance gives Russia a certain depth of military supply, which will be welcome in Moscow,” said Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group. “The most important message – which can be lost on [Russian President Vladimir] Putin for now is that one of the supposedly most important armed forces in the world must turn to Iran for help with key technologies, which shows how depleted its inventory is. .

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