The threat of Iranian drones and how to counter it

The threat of Iranian drones and how to counter it

Yemen’s Houthi militia parade with their Iran-supplied military drones in Sanaa on September 21, 2022. (AFP)

Iran has stepped up its drone game and devoted considerable resources to a national drone program. Some of these drones are armed, others only have a reconnaissance role, some – like the Mojer-6 drone shot down by a US fighter jet last week over Iraqi Kurdistan – can do both.

Tehran also has an inventory of so-called “suicide drones”, such as the Shahed-136, which are loaded with explosives and crash into a target instead of returning to base. The end result of Tehran’s efforts has been a large inventory of drones that have allowed it to project power across the Middle East at relatively low cost. These drones have also been used by Iran’s proxies throughout the region, such as the Houthis in Yemen.

Last week’s Iranian drone and missile strikes in northern Iraq were part of a growing trend. Other recent strikes have hit civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and last month Iranian drones operated by Tehran proxies attacked US forces in Syria. Last October, US and Syrian opposition forces were targeted in a drone attack on the Al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria. At least five bomb-wielding drones attacked both the US side of the base and the side housing Syrian opposition fighters. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

The threat from Iranian drones now extends beyond the region and into Ukraine, where Tehran is now supplying them to Russia. It’s no secret that Russian-Iranian military cooperation has existed for years. Russia’s stockpile of drones is increasingly depleted by surprisingly effective Ukrainian air defenses. The impact of international economic sanctions is also complicating things for Russia, making it more difficult to import the components needed to manufacture drones. As it becomes more difficult for Russia to replace its lost battleground in Ukraine, Moscow will lean on Tehran to fill the void. Still cash-strapped, and still dependent on Russian diplomatic support on the world stage, Iran is more than happy to oblige.

Iranian Mojer-6 drones have already been shot down in Ukraine, and last week the main Ukrainian port city of Odessa was attacked by Shahed-136 suicide drones. According to a Ukrainian spokeswoman, “about two dozen” Iranian drones have been spotted in the skies over Ukraine in recent weeks, and at least half have been shot down.

US to strengthen air defense cooperation with Gulf states

Luc Coffey

The threat from Iranian drones is not going away anytime soon. To mitigate its impact, both in the Middle East and in Ukraine, three things must be done.

First, the United States must increase its air defense cooperation with the Gulf States. Not only would this thwart Iranian drones, but it could also be an important and much-needed confidence-building measure between the countries of the region and the White House. It could also revive the proposed concept of a strategic alliance in the Middle East. This idea was first proposed by the Trump administration as a way to deepen US engagement in the region while increasing burden sharing. For several reasons, it never saw the light of day. Perhaps the growing air threat from Iranian drone and missile strikes will put it back on the agenda.

Second, more needs to be done to reduce the Iranian drone threat to Ukraine. The United States and its allies should provide more advanced air defense systems to Ukraine, such as the Patriot missile system. Although some progress has been made in strengthening Ukraine’s air defences, more can be done. Additionally, countries in the Middle East that have a lot of experience with Iranian drones, such as Israel, should work closely with Kyiv to share intelligence and best practices for defeating these drones.

Finally, the Biden administration and its European allies should pull out of talks with Iran in Vienna over its nuclear program. It becomes clear that the Iranians are not really interested in making a new deal at the moment. Moreover, given Russia’s war on Ukraine and the growing role Iranian drones are playing in it, it is inconceivable for the United States and the Europeans to think that the talks can continue in good faith. A return to robust economic sanctions would also limit Iran’s ability to produce drones.

With the introduction of Iranian drones into the skies above Ukraine, a regional challenge becomes more global. From Ukraine to the United Arab Emirates, it is in everyone’s interest that regional air defenses are improved and that Iranian aggression is checked.

Luke Coffey is a Principal Investigator at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News

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