Russia is adding Iranian drones to its war arsenal, though experts aren’t sure they will have a significant impact against the U.S.-supplied High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that have proved fruitful for Ukrainian forces.
The Pentagon confirmed that Russia has imported hundreds of Iranian drones as the war intensifies in Crimea and Kherson. The operation of the drones requires time-intensive military training that might not result in Russian success, as they still lack the precision missiles Ukraine possesses, making it difficult to target moving objects such as HIMARS.
“Drones will work with long-range unguided rockets such as the Russians have, but not as effectively,” Retired U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Mark Cancian told Newsweek. “Further, the Russians will need to develop a reconnaissance-targeting-strike system so they can turn information from drones into effective attacks.”
Russia’s strategy of using the drones is a similar to the Ukrainian strategy, according to Cancian. They’re going to use drones as spotters for artillery and as strike platforms with onboard missiles.
It remains unclear how long it will take for Russians to become acclimated to operating and maintaining the technology, Cancian said. However, he added that if the Russians learn to effectively use the drones, Ukrainians will face similar problems as what Russians are experiencing, including strikes on headquarters and logistics issues that might disrupt the counteroffensive.
Attacks from Ukrainian HIMARS and warplanes have reportedly made Russian soldiers’ morale “miserable.” They’ve proved to be instrumental in helping Ukraine beat back Russian advances, making it vital that Russia develop a strategy to counter the weapon.
“HIMARS and Triple 7s are at the very top of that [list that Russian military leaders are focused on destroying],” Samuel Bendett, Russia analyst for the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Newsweek. “That is why Russia needs extra capabilities to identify a target and hit it very quickly after identification.”
Bendett said that if Russia wanted to import drones from a country that already used them in combat, Iran was its only real option.
The two types of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) Russia has received from Iran are part of the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series, U.S. Defense Department spokesperson Todd Breasseale told Politico. The drones can be used for combat and reconnaissance missions, including air-to-surface attacks, electronic warfare and battlefield targeting.
The Shahed-129 has been touted as possibly Iran’s best-made drone, possessing the ability to travel nearly 1,100 miles farther than the Bayraktar TB2 drone provided to Ukraine by Turkey. The Iranian-produced drone can also carry over 500 pounds more than the Bayraktar TB2.
Russian aircraft loaded the UAVs at an airfield in Iran “through the course of several days in August” and then flew them to Russia, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said during an August 30 briefing. The move was made in response to “major supply shortages” resulting from sanctions, he added.
“Russian operators continue to receive training in Iran on how to use these systems….[Supply shortages have forced] Russia to rely on unreliable countries like Iran for supplies and equipment,” Patel said. “In fact, our information indicates that UAVs associated with this transfer have already experienced numerous failures.”
Sean Spoonts, a U.S. Navy veteran and editor-in-chief of Special Operations Forces Report (SOFREP), is skeptical that Russia will be able to effectively incorporate Iran’s drones into its war strategy. Russia would either have to fit its precision-guided missiles “on the hard points” of the Iranian-supplied drones, or Iranian-made software would have to make it possible to send targeting information from the drone to a Russian-made missile.
“Iran’s drones may be sophisticated for the region they are operating in Iraq and Yemen, but the conflict in Ukraine is another story,” Spoonts told Newsweek. “The Ukrainians are not only good at operating their own drone fleet, but they have also been pretty good at bringing down Russian drones as well. This is why Russia is buying them from Iran.”
For Russia to operate the Shahid-129 drones, for example, Spoonts said ground relay stations or aircraft are necessary for guidance due to a lack of a satellite communications system. Iran will also have to supply ground and air relay systems, which can direct only one drone at a time.
“For 100 of these drones, Russia will have to train 200 operators to fly them along with ground technicians as well,” he said. “This could take a few weeks of training. I am also skeptical as to whether Iran will be able to deliver 100 or 200 drones all at once. No one knows if their factories can crank them out that fast.”