TEL AVIV — Claiming self-sufficiency of its unmanned aerospace sector, Iranian military leaders last week released new details of the Islamic Republic’s indigenous arsenal of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), several of which are designed for strikes against air and ground targets.
In a week of televised ceremonies and press briefings commemorating the 33rd anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran revealed detailed photos of a tactical reconnaissance UAV called Yaseer; announced initial production of an attack drone dubbed Ra’ad-85; and declared serial manufacturing of the long-endurance, guided missile-launching Shahed-129.
Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) hailed Shahed-129 as the IRGC’s latest milestone cementing self-sufficiency of its UAV industrial sector. Speaking to reporters Sept. 27, Jafari flagged the “smart and precise” capabilities of the Shahed (Witness) 129, developed and produced by the Aerospace Division of the IRGC.
In a Sept. 27 interview with Iran’s semi-official FARS news agency, Jafari also hailed “successful reverse engineering technology” that has allowed Iran to produce an indigenous version of the US RQ-170 Sentinel. The Lockheed Martin-built stealth UAV was captured in December 2011 by Iranian forces near the town of Kashmar, and Washington subsequently acknowledged that the system was used in support of CIA operations in Afghanistan. According to FARS, Jafari said additional information on the cloned US system would soon be forthcoming.
As for the Shahed-129, details released by Tehran claim the unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) can carry up to eight weapons and remain airborne for 24 hours with an effective operational radius of 1,700 kilometers. Although the system was first unveiled a year ago, photos released last week show the UCAV in its armed configuration, with a pair of apparently laser-guided anti-tank missiles carried under each wing.
“Shahed-129 can easily track and identify… anyone targeting the Islamic Republic of Iran’s sustainable security and can fire missiles at them upon orders from commanders,” Iran’s Press TV quoted Brig. Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Division, as saying.
Tal Inbar, an UAV expert with Israel’s Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, noted that Iran did not release weight, wingspan or payload capacity of the Shahed-129. Nevertheless, from photos and video footage, Inbar estimated a size and design similar to the Hermes 900 by Israel’s Elbit Systems. He also noted what appeared to be a laser designator for advanced laser-guided anti-tank missiles.
“Based on the visuals, this could be a real UCAV system; not just a mockup for exhibitions,” Inbar said.
In an Oct. 1 interview, Inbar said the Shahed-129 would have less endurance and range than the Israeli Hermes 450 or 900 systems. But due to its similar design, Inbar said it could be problematic for Israel if transferred to Iran’s Lebanese-based ally Hizbollah.
“Because its profile and radar signature resemble our own UAVs, the introduction of this system to our region has significance,” he said.
But Danny Eshchar, deputy chief executive of Yavne, Israel-based Aeronautics Ltd., said it was doubtful that the Shahed-129 was the fully integrated, combat-capable UCAV system advertised by Tehran. “I studied the video, and from a professional perspective, the Shahed-129 does not look like an integrated weapon system. It’s a real air vehicle, but that’s about it,” the aeronautics executive said Oct. 1.
He added, “There are no communications antennas to support a 200 kilometer radius and the missiles hanging under the wings should be in canisters. If it were a genuine operational system, they wouldn’t expose sensitive guided seekers to flight conditions; they’d be shrouded until launch.”
As for new details released on Iran’s indigenous Yasseer, both Israeli experts said the short-range reconnaissance UAV appeared to be a copy of the US-produced Scan Eagle. Iran released new images of a ship-based, catapult-launched Yasseer on Sept. 28, and local media described the system as capable of flying up to eight hours at some 15,000 feet, with a range of up to 200 kilometers.
“Yasseer is capable of identifying targets with its very powerful camera and reporting back to base,” Iran’s semi-official FARS news agency quoted Brig. Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, commander of Iranian Army Ground Forces, as saying.
On Sept. 29 — the final day of the weeklong Sacred Defense commemorations — Iran’s Tasnim News Agency quoted Pourdastan as announcing production of the Ra’ad-85, an “advanced suicide drone” for attacking enemy helicopters and ground targets. According to the Tehran-based agency, Pourdastan described the Ra’ad-(Thunder) 85 as akin to “a mobile bomb, capable of destroying fixed and mobile targets.”
When asked about his assessment of Iran’s self-described suicide attack drone, Eshchar said the Ra’ad-85 did not appear to be a drone at all. “It’s not in the category of a UAV or a UCAV. It’s more ballistic; not even maneuvering … something between a rocket and a missile.”