The Liberian flag tanker Mercer Street was passing through the Gulf of Oman on July 29, bound for the United Arab Emirates, when it was attacked by two delta-winged drones packed with explosives. The surprised crew made several distress calls.
But before help could arrive, a third drone struck the wheelhouse in the early morning hours of July 30. The explosion tore a six-foot hole in the ship and killed the ship’s Romanian captain and his British bodyguard.
The attack on the tanker, managed by the Israeli company Zodiac Maritime, follows a half-year of acts of maritime sabotage between Iran and Israel, although this was the first fatal incident. Unsurprisingly, a sequel US central command investigation found that parts of the drones recovered from the attack matched those photographed on Iranian delta-winged drones.
The incidents reflect how Iran has developed a diverse arsenal of kamikaze and reusable combat drones to project military pressure across the Middle East to an acceptable degree of political and military risk. That’s because unlike Iran’s aging fleet of manned fighter jets, drones are affordable, disposable, and deniable – and therefore particularly useful in gray area settings below the threshold of open warfare.
In fact, Iran has used surveillance and combat drones for about thirty-five years, starting with the Ababil and Mohajer combat and surveillance drones deployed in the mid-1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. A drone unit was even the subject of a 90s war movie Mohajer. Modernized iterations of the Ababil and Mohajer followed in the 1990s and 2000s. In the early 2010s, Iranian companies began to introduce a wide range of new designs.
All or most modern Iranian drones, even those with a range of several hundred kilometers, still lack satellite communication links that allow remote control over distances greater than one hundred to two hundred miles. However, many areas of interest to Iran are within or just across its borders and coastline, or in places where allies are happy to receive or harbor weapons. Iranian. These allies are Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebels in Yemen, the Shiite militias in Iraq and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. It should be noted that crashed Iranian drones or their components were restored in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Iranian drones serve primarily in the air, sea and land branches of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps “expeditionary”, but are also introduced into the regular Iranian army. It is important to note that most military drones are used for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, which may include locating targets and observing the results of ballistic missile attacks, or as training targets for them. air defense units. Even combat drones typically perform far more reconnaissance missions than strike missions.
Tracking Iranian drone projects complicated by Tehran’s tendency to circulate made, exaggerated or inconsistent propaganda about his weapons. Many Iranian companies develop and manufacture drones, although these rely to some extent on standard drone components, especially engines, acquired in China or Europe through international intermediaries and front companies. In fact, the large number of different types of development or production may indicate inefficiency due to competing industrial and bureaucratic interests.
Iran has also recovered many crashed US drones, including Boeing ScanEagles drones, RQ-170 surveillance drones, and Predator and Reaper combat drones, and has developed national designs clearly inspired by them, namely the Yasir , Saegheh-2, Shahed-129 and Kaman-122.
HESA Ababil-2T, Ababil-3 and Atlas
The Ababil “Swallow” entered service in the 1980s, possibly serving as a kamikaze weapon against Iraqi forces. The following Ababil-2 and Ababil-3 models introduced more general surveillance roles with modernized sensors, video feeds, and greater use of lightweight composite materials. Recently, the Ababil-3 and an imitation called the Atlas have been adapted to serve as a UCAV armed with Qaem-1 precision guided bombs.
However, the older twin-tailed Ababil-2T variant gained more notoriety due to Tehran’s transfer of drones to armed groups in the Middle East.
Hezbollah received at least eight to twelve Ababil-2Ts, which were renamed Mirsad-1 and equipped with up to 110 pounds of explosives. Several flew over Israeli airspace during a war with Israel in 2006, and at least two were shot down by IDF F-16s. Hezbollah claims to have withdrawn the Mirsads in 2018. Hamas Shebab kamikaze drones used in the Gaza war in May 2021 also appears to be derived from (but not identical to) the Ababil.
The Houthi drones, which still carry Iranian serial numbers, are designated Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K, with conventional and air-blast warheads respectively. The Houthis employ Qasefs to target phase-controlled radars of Saudi Patriot air defense systems to improve the chances of penetration of their ballistic missile attacks. Additionally, a 2019 Qasef drone attack killed a Yemeni intelligence chief at al-Anad air base in 2019.
In 2018, the Houthi rebels began deploying the more efficient Sammad drone. While the Sammad-1 has a surveillance role, the Sammad-2 (or UAV-X) reconnaissance / kamikaze drone can carry a forty pound warhead and the Sammad-3 would have an extended attack range of 932 miles. Although the Sammad does not fit a known Iranian drone, it uses several components of Iranian drones, as well as German engines acquired by Iran. via a Greek company.
The Sammad-3 were used in a attack on Saudi oil processing plant in 2019, which halved that country’s oil production for two days. They were also said to have participated in two strikes at Dubai International Airport. Saudi F-15 and F-16 jets shot down many Qasef and Sammad drones with Sidewinder missiles, as you can see in this remarkable images.
Quds Ra’ad Roving Ammunition
Floating ammunition is often called upon to strike targets much closer to the front line. The Ra’ad 85, which is used by the IRGC, has a range of sixty-two miles and can dive at a designated target up to 155 miles per hour, which could even include helicopters. In one case in 2015, five Ra’ads hit Syrian rebels during a meeting in the province of Idleb.
Arash: Kamikaze Radar Hunter Drone
Iran has also developed a container-launched anti-radar drone that can be carried on top of a small car and that would attack targets at long distances (over nine hundred miles). This type of roaming munition could prove difficult to detect before launch, and could be reasonably accurate by relying on built-in artificial intelligence to spot emissions from air defense radars active on the ground or at sea. Arash’s control / artificial intelligence system is more flexible than that of a radar-guided cruise missile, however, is unclear.
This two-part series examines the characteristics and operational use of the most important armed drones currently in Iranian service. This article focuses on single-use “kamikaze” drones, also known as loitering ammunition, designed to crash into targets once located. The second part of this series will examine Iran’s reusable unmanned aerial combat vehicles, which can engage targets with missiles and bombs.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and was a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, publishing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.