In the wake of the mid-May defeat of Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza after a ten-day war with Israel, Iran did several things. First, it congratulated Hamas for its victory. This was a symbolic gesture because it is customary for anyone losing a war with Israel to declare victory because Israel does not start these wars, or attempt to completely destroy the attacker and take control of enemy territory. If the attacker still has spokesmen and a link to international media, they declare victory. The Hamas attack was supposed to be a surprise and employed a record number of rockets fired in a few days. Those were Iranian rockets, using Iranian tactics taught by Iranian advisors. To Iran it wasn’t a defeat but a learning experience. Iran had already found an effective way to attack Saudi Arabia by arming Shia rebels in Yemen with over a thousand ballistic missiles and UAVs. Most of these were aimed at southwestern Saudi Arabia. Less than one percent of those UAVs and missiles hit anything of consequence in Saudi Arabia. Iran is seeking to carry out a similar campaign against Israel using Iran backed militias in Syria. That has not been working out so far because Israeli intelligence capabilities and airstrikes have been much more effective in Syria than Saudi efforts in Yemen. This despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia have similar aircraft, smart bombs and air defense systems.
Another problem Iran is facing is the growing number of Israeli attacks inside Iran. For example, on May 18th Iran presented a new UAV, apparently a clone of the American Predator, which Iran names the “Gaza” in honor of its brave ally Hamas. Two days later there was an explosion in the HESA (Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company) that builds aircraft and components for aircraft and UAVs. The new Gaza UAV was built in an IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard) owned and operated plant. The IRGC owns and operates a growing number of businesses in Iran, a trend that angers many Iranians.
The IRGC is the “palace guard” for the religious dictatorship that has misruled Iran since the 1980s. The IRGC kills Iranians who openly oppose the government and takes credit in leading the effort to destroy Israel. That is an effort that most organizations would not want to take credit for because it consists of a growing list of embarrassing defeats.
Some aspects of the IRGC war effort have been a success. The IRGC took the lead in developing UAVs, an effort that began in the 1980s. Since then, Iran has spent billions of dollars and kept thousands of Iranian engineers and technicians busy developing and building UAVs. The earliest success was the Ababil which entered service in the 1990s. Since then, nearly a hundred different designs have been developed but less than a dozen proved successful enough to put into production for regular use. These included several generations of Ababil and the larger 174 kg (383 pound) Mojaher. The 400 kg Shahed was based on the American RQ-7 and Israeli Hermes 450. The Shahed first flew in 2009 but was not ready for service until 2012.
In some cases, Iran boasted of cloning American UAVs. The first one was their Yasir, a copy of the American Scan Eagle. This original is a 19 kg (40 pounds) UAV first developed for commercial use by fishing boats to find schools of fish. The U.S. Navy adopted it in 2005 and the Iranian version was equipped with explosives for use as a one-way cruise missile with a range of over a thousand kilometers. Some of the larger Iranian UAVs were also equipped with missiles or bombs but these have not been as useful as the explosives-equipped cruise-missile versions. Iran also developed and used some jet-propelled UAVs based on American designs but these were more expensive and not as successful as the slower, propeller driven UAVs used in mass attacks. Iran has also developed reconnaissance UAVs and target drones for target practice.
Iran has developed nearly a hundred different models of UAV, most based on foreign designs and often from wreckage of UAVs that crashed, or crash landed nearly intact. Iran has spent a lot more money on developing and building ballistic missiles, which it still stockpiles for future use. But for current attacks the cheaper, slower and low flying UAVs have been more effective at getting through and hitting targets.
Encouraged by their success in Yemen, Iran tried, unsuccessfully, to attack Israel with UAVs. That did not work. In early 2018 Israel shot down an Iranian Shahed 171 jet powered UAV after it crossed the Israeli-Jordanian border flying at a very low altitude. The Israelis say they tracked the Shahed 171 as it left an Iranian base in central Syria and were able to intercept and shoot it down using an AH-64 helicopter gunship. Israel provided video of the missile hitting the Shahed 171 and later displayed pieces of the wreckage on TV. Before this Iran had never put UAVs like this into a combat zone, much less used them to try and fly over Israel. Previously it was unclear if UAVs like this actually existed outside of mockups or altered digital photos.
The last time the Shahed 171 was seen was in late 2016 when Iranian TV showed video of a factory producing clones of the American RQ-170 UAV that crash-landed in Iran during 2011. The video showed 13 of the Iranian clones in a factory-type building. But the 13 UAVs represented three different variations on the original. Two of these appeared to be prototypes of a jet powered RQ-170 (Shahed 171). The other eleven UAVs had the distinctive shape of the RQ-170 but appeared to be designed to use a pusher type propeller in the rear. All this appeared to be another propaganda event, for domestic consumption and to confuse or simply annoy foreigners. Israel was the first foreign nation to possess a Shahed 171s, although not intact. But the way these situations are handled, Israeli and American technical personnel worked together to reassemble the Shahed 171 and compare notes on what the RQ-170 can actually do and what the Shahed 171 appears capable of. The Israelis probably already knew a lot about the Shahed 171 and admitted they were able to track this “stealthy” UAV over Syria but won’t say how or how well. Iran had no comment. But this was the beginning of an informative tale of how Iran obtains and uses superior foreign tech.
This all began in late 2011 when Iran displayed what appeared to be an American RQ-170 jet powered UAV, which they claimed had landed intact in Iran two weeks earlier. Iran claimed they had hijacked the control signals for the RQ-170 and landed it themselves. This seemed highly unlikely but not impossible. Experts on Iranian military technology immediately suspected something else. First, the Iranians are constantly lying about their military exploits, especially when it comes to developing new weapons and technology. This is apparently done mainly for domestic propaganda as satellite photos never show more than a few prototypes of these wonder-weapons.
Many Americans familiar with the RQ-170 carefully studied the pictures of the "captured" RQ-170 and immediately suspected something was off. For one thing, the RQ-170 shown was the right size and shape but the wrong color. Not just a different color from that seen on many photos of the RQ-170s in Afghanistan, but also a color unknown in American military service. A closer examination of the Iranian RQ-170 photos indicated that the Iranians had reassembled an RQ-170 that had crashed and broken into three or more pieces. Then the Iranians apparently gave the UAV a new paint job (which was obvious to anyone seeing those photos.) It was later discovered that the RQ-170 pancaked as it landed, largely destroying the front of the aircraft but otherwise intact.