The Drones Russia Is Reportedly Receiving From Iran For Its Ukraine War

These are the types of drones reports state Russia is already in the process of receiving from Iran to support its flagging war effort.

byEmma Helfrich, Tyler Rogoway| PUBLISHED Sep 4, 2022 6:03 PM
The Drones Russia Is Reportedly Receiving From Iran For Its Ukraine War
Iran State Media
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Reports state that the first tranche of Iranian drones intended for use in Ukraine has made it to Russia, confirming rumors that have been swirling for weeks, and some U.S. officials have assessed that the delivery is only just the beginning as ‘hundreds’ more are expected to be imported on an undisclosed timeline. Mohajer-6s and the Shahed-series of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, reportedly make up at least some of the initial shipment, and different variations of the types are capable of various operations including conducting surveillance, strikes, and electronic warfare missions. In this piece, The War Zone will provide an explainer of these systems to try and better understand the role they may play in Ukraine.

Several media outlets have cited both Iranian and U.S. defense officials, named and unnamed, in their reports about the delivery, which is largely said to have been an effort to provide a way for Russia to quickly get its hands on the kinds of capabilities it desperately needs for its faltering operations in Ukraine. Massive losses of equipment paired with supply shortages brought by international sanctions and export controls have significantly limited Russia’s access to higher-tech components that go into weapons and other equipment for its armed forces. This has helped Ukraine retain ground as Russia tries to sustain its invasion long past its original estimates.

Iran, which has been under heavy sanctions of its own for many years, has largely developed its own aerospace sector that operates at a significant level without a heavy reliance on a global supply chain. Iran has also invested very heavily in local UAV development and production

With Russia having failed to gain air superiority over Ukraine and with dwindling long-range missile stockpiles, Iran is something of an ideal partner for Moscow so that it can get proven drone capabilities in the air quickly over Ukraine, regardless of the crushing sanctions Moscow faces. The drone agreement with Iran was also reached in hopes of generally strengthening ties between the two powers, which are now both facing isolation on the geopolitical stage. 

While The New York Times revealed the specific variant of the Mohajer family that has been sent to Russia, making it easier to break down the types of capabilities that it could potentially be equipped with, the Shahed-series of UAVs is a far broader issue.

The Shahed family includes a number of completely distinct designs, many with no relationship to each other. There have been indications that the Shaheds sent to Ukraine could include examples of the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191. However, it is necessary to stress that the exact configuration of both the Mohajer-6s and the Shahed drone types, as well as which weapons may have come along with them, has not been divulged in any official manner. 

A front view of the Shahed-191 UAV during the Eqtedar 40 defense exhibition in Tehran. Credit: No author/Wikimedia Commons

Even though it doesn’t appear that the recently delivered drones have entered the fray over Ukraine, at leas in large numbers, just yet, here are the capabilities that the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series of drones may offer Russian forces as the conflict rages on. 

Mohajer-6

Iran’s Mohajer family of UAVs has been around for a while. In fact, the original Mohajer was Iran’s first drone to enter series production in the 1980s.

First unveiled in 2017, Mohajer-6 represents the latest in this long line. The aircraft officially entered serial production in February 2018, and was designed to carry out both reconnaissance and attack operations for the Iranian military. While most sources point to Qods Aviation Industry Company as Mohajer’s manufacturer, there has been debate over rumors that the aircraft was actually developed by Qods’ rival, Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company. Although, those claims are largely unsubstantiated.

A Mohajer-6 UAV seen during the Eqtedar 40 defense exhibition in Tehran. Credit: No author/Wikimedia Commons

Information that has been made available through the U.S. Army's Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) says that Mohajer-6 “is an Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) UAV capable of carrying a multispectral surveillance payload and/or up to two precision-guided munitions.” As of February 2018, 10 Mohajer-6 drones were said to have been developed for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Ground Forces, three for the Iranian Army, and another 40 were purportedly planned for the IRGC Navy. Those numbers have likely ballooned massively over the past four years as Iran’s use of drones has skyrocketed, as has that of its proxies.

The TRADOC webpage goes on to add that the Mohajer-6’s maximum takeoff weight is about 1,322 pounds and measures to be just under six meters in length, with an overall payload capacity of 88 pounds. It’s designed with high-mounted straight wings toward the back of the aircraft’s fuselage and a high-mounted horizontal stabilizer. Twin tail booms and fixed tricycle landing gear are also primary characteristics of the Mohajer-6’s design, and the Army notes that it touts a flight endurance of 12 hours. 

Also included on the U.S. Army site is information explaining that the Mohajer-6 requires a “crew of five to seven” personnel along with two operators to control and monitor the aircraft. Even though it isn’t specified in the document, the five to seven personnel likely make up the full servicing crew including a launch and recovery element. It can also be flown relatively autonomously through its autopilot system, which directs the UAV via waypoints.

In terms of its ISTAR functions, the Army describes the drone’s capabilities as featuring a “fixed, forward-facing camera for navigation and a gimbal on the chin for a laser range finder and multispectral IR and visible light electro-optical imagery.” The description also notes that Mohajer-6 has three antennas, two on its left wing and one on its right, in addition to a pitot tube on its nose. Iran state-affiliated media has also claimed that the UAV can be fitted with electronic support measures, communications jamming, or electronic warfare payloads.

A Mohajer-6 UAV with a Qaem precision-guided munition seen during the Eqtedar 40 defense exhibition in Tehran. Credit: Mohsen Ranginkaman/Wikimedia Commons

The Mohajer-6’s armament is reportedly made up of two hardpoints, one under each wing, designed to each carry one Qaem TV/IR glide bomb or one Almas missile. While most of the Mohajer-6s that were revealed during the mass production announcement event were not fitted with hardpoints, there are also unconfirmed reports that A and B variants of the Mohajer-6 are fitted with four hardpoints, two to each wing, capable of carrying the same munitions.

To further confirm the drone’s attack role, a public U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report on Iranian military power published in 2019 mentioned that Mohajer-6 “can be armed and are capable of conducting precision air-to-ground strikes with small guided munitions."

Shahed-129

As mentioned earlier, recent developments would suggest that the Shahed-series of drones that have made their way to Russia are likely made up of two different types: Shahed-129 and Shahed-191, as those are the aircraft that Russian officials were recently spotted viewing at Kashan Airbase ahead of the reported purchase. Shahed-129, for instance, was first unveiled in September 2012, and media outlets were quick to pick up on its similarities to both the Israeli Hermes 450 UAV and the U.S.-made MQ-1 Predator

According to another public page on the U.S. Army's TRADOC website, Shahed-129 is a single-engine medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV purportedly designed by Shahed Aviation Industries with notably similar V-tail vertical stabilizers, high-mounted wings, and retractable landing gear to that of the Hermes 450 especially. However, it's not clear what, if any of the information provided by TRADOC, applies to specific generations of the Shahed-129, of which two are known.

A first-generation Shahed-129. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since the TRADOC page doesn't expressly say that its data applies to one or the other, it can be assumed that the figures would at least apply to the first-generation design, but it's uncertain if all of the same features carry over to the second. For visual comparison, a photo of a first-gen Shahed-129 is included above and images of the second-gen design are embedded below. The most notable difference between both designs is the antenna dome that can be seen atop the second-gen Shahed-129, which could indicate some kind of longer-range control system or datalink.

Visitors look at a second-generation Shahed-129 with an antenna dome in central Tehran on the second day of the ten-day celebration of the Islamic Revolution anniversary, February 2, 2019. Credit: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Even though a number of the images that have surfaced of the UAV don’t picture it with any weapons, similarly to the Mohajer, the DIA’s 2019 report also confirmed that Shahed-129 can serve as a multirole drone capable of carrying out both reconnaissance missions as well as precision air-to-ground strikes with small guided munitions.

On the intelligence-gathering side of the equation, the U.S. Army reports that Shahed-129 is fitted with a chin-mounted Oghab-6 EO/IR sensor turret and possesses the ability to downlink sensor imagery in real-time. Iran has also claimed that Shahed-129 has a flight endurance of 24 hours.

A second-generation Shahed-129 UAV with an antenna dome as seen during the Eqtedar 40 defense exhibition in Tehran. Credit: No author/Wikimedia Commons

In terms of armament, the Shahed-129 is said to be capable of carrying four Sadid-345 precision-guided munitions, and the Army claims that it boasts a payload capacity of about 881 pounds. Other technical specifications are challenging to come by as Iranian state media outlets have published varied figures likely in an attempt to bolster the system’s performance on paper.

An operational range stretching from 450 to 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) has been shared online, with the latter half of the spectrum being primarily shared by Iran. However, the U.S. Army claims that the Shahed-129’s flight is dependent on a ground control station, which is reportedly limited to a 200 kilometers (124 miles) line-of-sight downlink, at least for man-in-the-loop operations, significantly reducing its long-range flexibility. 

Shahid-129’s attack capability was later confirmed in 2014 when the Iranian military began using it against unidentified targets in Iraq and Syria in what later proved to be among the first Iranian drone strikes carried out in wartime. In yet another historic incident involving a Shahed-129, the United States used an F-15E to shoot one down near the At Tanf base in Syria after unidentified militants had attempted to strike it days earlier. 

Shahed-191

The Shahed-191 shares commonalities in the kinds of sensors and munitions it carries and in its ostensible missions sets with Shahed-129, but Shahed-191 is reportedly intended to be more of a low-signature (stealthy) system. PressTV, an Iranian state-affiliated media outlet, shared a video on Twitter of what is believed to be the unveiling of Shahed-191 in 2016 even going so far as to claim that it’s a version of the U.S.-made RQ-170 Sentinel UAV. This assertion is only supported by the fact that Iran had actually captured an RQ-170 back in 2011 after one crashed that was heading to surveil key areas that support Iran's nuclear program. Although it has a similar general shape as the RQ-170, it is nothing like it in terms of capability, level of low-observability (stealth), or technological underpinnings. It is also worth mentioning that, for a time,  Shahed-191 was also referred to as Saegheh-2.

Iran shared a video back in 2016 showcasing their inventory of drones, and many of which appeared to be the Shahed-191. Viewers could observe features like a similar grated air intake to that of the real RQ-170, air-to-ground missiles on the belly of the aircraft — which would go against the RQ-170’s stealth role — and essentially just a largely similar silhouette to the Sentinel.  

The reality is that there are a number of Iranian RQ-170-shaped spinoffs of various sizes, including propeller-driven types, and other sizes of jet-powered types beyond the Shahed-191. These also carry various Shahed designations.

But now, the Shahed-191 is known to largely feature internal weapons now to help minimize its radar signature. It also uses skids instead of landing gear and can be outfitted with an electro-optical turret. Other members of the RQ-170-shaped Shahed family, like the propeller-driven Shahed-171, carry weapons externally.

According to an article published by The Aviationist, claims made by Iranian state media insist that the drone can also carry a Synthetic Aperture Radar turret instead of the EO/IR turret and that it has an endurance of 4.5 hours and a combat radius of 450 km. Takeoff is reportedly performed using a rail installed in the back of a pickup truck which then speeds down a runway, and the Shahed’s weapons are installed in two internal bays allegedly capable of holding a Shadid-342 guided glide bomb with a fragmentation warhead.

In 2018, the Israel Defense Forces shot one of these RQ-170 facsimiles down as it entered Israeli airspace from Syria as can be seen in the video below, then again in 2021 with an F-35I after two Iranian drones flew into Israeli territory. 

Other possibilities

It is important to note that Iran has developed and produced many other types of drones, including a wide array just within the Shahed family. Oftentimes, multiple types can overlap directly in capability. While other types may have not been spotted during the showcase attended by Russian officials who were reportedly shopping for drones this July or reported as those that supposedly Russia has or is set to receive, that doesn't mean they didn't procure additional models.

Shahed-121 UAV on the left, Shahed-129 UAV with new radome on the right, and two Sadid guided bombs at an exhibition in Tehran. Credit: Meysan Mah'abadi/Wikimedia Commons

This is especially possible when it comes to suicide or kamikaze drones, which Iran makes a dizzying array of. These include small prop-driven types to those that come close to resembling jet-powered cruise-missile. While it isn't certain if these were included in the initial tranche or might be among the 'hundreds' of Iranian drones that Russia may still be in the process of obtaining, they would be of very high interest to the Russians who certainly have a need for more weapons capable of executing precision standoff strikes.

This is arguably an area of drone development where Iran has been the most successful, a reality its proxies have benefitted from greatly. Ukraine has also used long-range suicide drones against key Russian targets to great effect. Meanwhile, Russia has only employed small drones capable of short-range suicide attacks, and even then, they appear to be almost totally unreliable and/or ineffective.

The War Zone has discussed the potential utility of strike-capable Iranian drones, and especially suicide drones, being deployed against Ukraine at length in a past feature, which can be read here. In it, we stated:

As a means of prosecuting long-range attacks, Iranian armed drones would be much cheaper than using cruise or ballistic missiles. Furthermore, Russia’s capacity to produce such weapons in the face of sanctions is also questionable. While the Iranian-made suicide drones would lack some of the sophistication and reduced radar cross-section of the latest Russian cruise missiles, they would be highly suitable for the same kinds of pinpoint attacks on infrastructure. Their range would also mean they could be used against targets in western Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv. Even using them indiscriminately as a sort of 'vengeance weapon' on the capital is a real possibility.

On the battlefield in Ukraine

The variety of capabilities that the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones, as well as other similar types, could bring to bear would be disheartening news for Ukrainian forces. The use of drones has proliferated on both sides of the conflict as the technologies are often easy to use and cheap to acquire, but even still, Russia just doesn’t have anything in significant enough numbers on the front lines that can be armed or carry-out longer endurance missions like Mohajer and Shahed. 

Russia has lost numerous of its basic surveillance drones, like the Orlan-10, as well and doesn’t have much in the way of stockpiles to keep up with supplementing those losses.

An Orlan-10 drone after having been prepped for takeoff. Credit: Mike1979 Russia/Wikimedia Commons

On paper, the Mojhaer-6 and Shahed-191 would give Russia something loosely similar in capability as what Ukraine enjoys via its Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones which have achieved legendary status. They could strike all types of smaller targets, including armor and personnel, while also providing long-endurance surveillance. Their limitations to line-of-sight control, at least for dynamic operations, is one factor to contend with, but for pre-programmed missions against far more limited target sets, this can potentially be overcome.

But the Iranian drones still have to work at least decently and Russia still needs to become savvy with operating them.

Recent reports almost immediately following the widespread announcements that some Iranian UAVs had arrived in Russia state that a number of the aircraft included in the shipment are already experiencing unspecified failures. Department of Defense spokesperson Todd Breasseale confirmed this information to Politico, although he didn’t provide any additional information in regards to the shortcomings these drones are presenting. 

Russian forces will likely continue to train on the UAVs in preparation for the rest of the deliveries that are expected to come as part of the overall agreement, but it will certainly be interesting to see if similar complications arise. Until then, The War Zone will keep an eye out for the first appearance of either Mohajer-6 or Shahed-series drones, or even possibly others of Iranian origin, in Ukraine.

Contact the author: Emma@thewarzone.com and Tyler@thedrive.com

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