Iran has discovered that its cheapest weapon for attacking Saudi Arabia was more effective in getting past Saudi air defense systems than the hundreds of ballistic missiles fired from Yemen against Saudi targets. This was made clear in September 2019 when Iran sent at least 25 explosive equipped UAVs and cruise missiles to attack the Saudi Abqaiq oil facility and shut down half of Saudi oil production for several days. Within a week Saudi intel revealed that debris found on the ground indicated that Iran used 18 UAVs and seven Ya Ali air-launched cruise missiles to attack two Saudi targets. The Ya Ali has been around since 2014 and has a range of 700 kilometers. This disproved the Iranian claim that Iran-backed Shia rebels in Yemen had carried out the attack and that Iran was not responsible. The Iranians have had a lot of success using proxies, like Hezbollah and Shia rebels in Yemen to attack their enemies in a fashion that allows Iran to deny involvement.
Proxies have a short shelf life as convincing cover for the real culprit. This could be seen as Saudi intel quickly deduced that the UAVs and cruise missiles were flying preprogrammed flight paths using GPS. The flight path carefully followed a course that avoided areas covered by Saudi Patriot system radars, which see in a 120-degree arc, not 360 (all around). The attack force moved along the Iraqi coast and stayed off the Persian Gulf, because that body of water is under constant surveillance by the United States Navy and Air Force. The attack force then proceeded south of Abqaiq and turned around so that the attackers appeared like they had just arrived from Yemen. Not all the UAVs and cruise missiles hit targets. Over a third of them, for one reason or another, failed to hit the target.
This attack was well planned and hit key facilities within the sprawling oil processing center. The Iran-backed Shia rebels quickly took credit for the attack but few people who knew about how these Iranian UAVs operated believed the Yemeni rebels. Although those rebels have been using similar UAVs for similar attacks since 2018, one like this, so far from northern Yemen and so precise and carefully planned, was beyond any demonstrated capabilities of the Shia rebels. For one thing, the Saudis have developed methods for detecting and destroying these UAVs that were operating in Yemen and it is unlikely that a formation of a dozen or more could travel 1,400 kilometers over Saudi territory without being detected. Then the Americans provided photographic evidence that the UAVs came from the north (as in from Iran), not the south. Kuwait also reported detecting a number of UAVs passing over their territory before the Abqaiq attack.
Up until this attack Iran had provided the Yemeni rebels with over 200 short range ballistic missiles for attacks on Saudi Arabia, and all had either misfired or been intercepted by Saudi Patriot anti-missile missiles. In 2016 Iran decided to use it low-tech UAVs equipped with explosives against targets in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It soon became clear these weapons were much more effective, and cheaper. A 2017 attack also provided proof that the UAVs were Iranian. In early 2017 four UAVs that Yemen Shia rebels used to attack Saudi and UAE air defense radars were not locally made as the rebels claimed, but were smuggled in (disassembled) from Iran via Oman hidden in truckloads of non-military goods. The four UAVs were identified as Ababils, which are made in Iran and provided to several Islamic terror groups so far. In Yemen the Ababils are used to try and incapacitate Saudi Patriot air defense systems. If you know where the air defense radars are you can use the GPS guidance of the Ababil to send the UAV, armed with an explosive warhead, to destroy or damage the radar.
Ababil is an 83 kg (183 pound) UAV with a three meter (ten foot) wing span, a payload of about 36 kg (80 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour and an endurance of 90 minutes. The Ababil under radio control can operate as far as 120 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to the control of its controllers for a landing via parachute. The Ababil can use its GPS guidance to fly over 300 kilometers in one-way “cruise missile” mode. The Saudi improved their air defenses against these UAVs and that was one reason for the September 2019 attack on Saudi oil facilities using UAVs and cruise missiles was launched from Iran.
Since the 1980s 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 dozens of 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. Now Israel has one of these Shahed 171s, although not intact. But the way these situations are handled, Israeli and American technical personnel are reassembling the Shahed 171 and comparing 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.
What actually happened to the RQ-170 was that the American operators of the UAV lost the satellite signal connection with the RQ-170 and the aircraft eventually crashed. There was no indication of Iranians jamming the satellite signal. Iran has jammed satellite signals before, but only with wide area entertainment programming, not encrypted UAV control signals. Thus many mysteries remain but some have been cleared up because the Iranians could not resist creating a photo opportunity.
The RQ-170 first showed up in Afghanistan and South Korea in 2009. The U.S. Air Force then admitted that this was a high-altitude reconnaissance UAV developed in secret by Lockheed-Martin during the previous decade. It has a 20-meter (65.5 feet) wingspan and is 4.5 meters (17.7 feet) long. The RQ-170 is believed to be a replacement for some of the U-2s and a supplemental aircraft for the larger Global Hawk (which has a 42-meter wingspan.) RQ-170s have been operating over Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran since 2010. Only about 20 have been built and they have never been armed, only used for high-altitude reconnaissance.
Exactly why this UAV came down, and how damaging the loss of aircraft and sensor technology is, won't be known for years. Losses like this have occurred for decades and do have an impact. For example, U.S. cruise missiles that crashed in Pakistan (on their way to Afghanistan) in the 1990s clearly influenced the design of a subsequent Pakistani cruise missile. American warplanes that crashed in North Vietnam during the 1960s provided some tech for China and Russia, but nothing decisive.