With speculation that Russia will soon acquire “hundreds” of armed and unarmed drones from Iran, the inevitable question of how Moscow plans to use them in its grinding war in Ukraine arises. When the White House publicised the alleged sale in mid-July, Samuel Bendett, a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, reasonably speculated that a number of these drones could be loitering munitions, also known as suicide drones.
“One of the biggest lessons Russians took from 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war was mass use of loitering munitions is key to military success,” he tweeted. “So if Iran is supplying ‘several hundred’ drones to Russia, its highly likely that loitering munitions are part of the transfer.”
In that fall 2020 war, Azerbaijan used Israeli-built Harop loitering munitions to destroy Armenian S-300 air defence missile systems, the same kind of mobile long-range Soviet-era systems Ukraine is effectively using against intruding Russian aircraft today.
Does Russia hope to replicate Azerbaijan’s success using Iranian-made drones? Does Tehran even have drones as sophisticated as the Harop to offer Moscow?
“Iran has been a great student of drone technology over the past 20 years, developing its own and reverse-engineering captured U.S. and Israeli technology when presented with an opportunity,” Bendett told me.
“Even if their loitering munitions would not exactly match the Harop’s specs, then (they) would be compatible, given that Iran has several classes of loitering munitions.”
James Rogers, the DIAS Associate Professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), pointed out that Iranian loitering munitions, such as the Ra’ad 85, “have less range and flight time when compared to the Israeli Harops Azerbaijan used in the 2020 war.”
“Nevertheless, Iran’s systems are reported to work in an electronic warfare environment and have the ability to strike larger fixed and mobile targets,” he told me. “Iran also has the battle-hardened Ababil III drone, which has been used in a loitering capacity, with proximity fuse air-burst munitions targeting high-profile military personnel.”
Rogers believes it will be difficult for Russia to “emulate the technical success” of Azerbaijani Harops against Armenian S-300s with Iranian drones.
“The Harops have an extended communication and loitering range, twice that of the Ra’ad 85 and Ababil III Iranian systems, and are in general perceived to be more reliable,” he said. “Nevertheless, when Iranian designed loitering drones have been deployed in conflict, they have been deployed in multiples, in a rudimentary swarm formation that saturate and overwhelm enemy defenses.”
“If used in this capacity, the Iranian systems may well have an increased impact on the battlefield.”
Bendett noted that the Russians aren’t just worried about Ukrainian S-300s but also the recently supplied U.S.-built long-range surface-to-surface HIMARS artillery rockets.
“At this point, practically all Ukrainian long-range strike capability would be targets for the Russian forces equipped with advanced technology like loitering drones (either their own or Iranian),” he said.
During the conflict in Yemen, the Houthis used Qasef-1/2K loitering munitions, essentially a clone of the Iranian Ababil-2 drone, against Saudi Arabia’s air defenses. Using open-source GPS coordinates of the positions of Saudi MIM-104 Patriot batteries, the Qasef drones would crash into their radars. The Houthis would then fire volleys of missiles at Saudi targets.
“Houthis struck stationary targets with Qasef drones, so any Ukrainian stationary military assets like an air defense battery or a warehouse would be a target,” Bendett said.
Rogers expects Russia to use Iranian drones it receives “in a similar way to how they were used by non-state actors across the Middle East.”
“Iranian loitering munitions have a track record of being used in a ‘swarming tactic’ formation,” he said. “This is when multiple drones are sent at a target all at once to overwhelm enemy air defenses.”
Such tactics mightn’t be a major departure from how Russia has used its airpower in this war so far.
“Russia has been known to do something similar with its air force, using its airpower capacity to saturate Ukrainian defenses,” Rogers said.
“When the two ways of thinking about air power are combined, it will likely see Russia using Iranian drones in saturation attacks against Ukrainian targets.”
Bendett anticipates Moscow using different tactics “to take out Ukrainian stationary and mobile targets, anything from soldiers, weapons, machinery and artillery on the move to port facilities, warehouses and command and control centers.”
“Russia took a very serious look at the Azerbaijani success in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, and one lesson it drew from that conflict is that loitering munitions and combat drones are key to modern warfare success,” he said.
“So once/if this technology is transferred, Russia gains a significant aerial asset that will be unleashed against Ukrainian forces,” he concluded.