Kamikaze Killers Iran's Drones Fly with Western Technology

Russia has been terrorizing Ukraine for weeks using Iranian drones. A closer look at the weapons has shown that some of the parts used to build them come from the West, despite strict sanctions against Tehran.
A secret underground done base in Iran: Between high and low tech

A secret underground done base in Iran: Between high and low tech

Foto: Iranian Army Office / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO

Russian has been attacking Ukrainian infrastructure from the air since October. The consequences of the missile and drone attacks are dramatic and felt in many places. Many people have been forced to manage without electricity and water, and heating systems aren’t working as a result.

The attacks by Russian forces are so massive that, according to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, only about 13 percent of the ammunition that had originally been available for Iskander missile systems still remains in Russian depots.

Stocks of cruise missiles, such as Kalibr and Kh-55 systems, have shrunk to half or less, he said. Still, it’s likely that the shelling of power plants and transmission lines will continue for the time being. Last Wednesday alone, the Ukrainian air force counted some 70 Russian cruise missiles fired at Ukrainian targets as well as five drones.

Whereas Kalibr guided weapons cost several million dollars each, drones are comparatively cheap and yet nonetheless often fulfil their destructive missions. Small swarms of kamikaze drones have caused major damage in Ukraine. Numerous experts believe that Russia obtained two models from Iran and made some optical changes to the design.

Tracking Arms Deliveries

Moscow has always denied having purchased Shahed 136 and 131 drones from Tehran. But Iran recently admitted it had supplied Putin with drones, at least before the war. Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amirabdollahian said a small amount had been supplied before February 24, the day Russian forces invaded Ukraine.

A new report  from Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a group of experts from the United Kingdom specializing in tracking arms shipments and other military material, suggests that the Iranians’ statement isn’t true. A CAR team traveled to Ukraine in November, where they dissected various drone models that had fallen into the hands of Ukrainian troops with varying degrees of damage.

This enabled an analysis of the construction methods of the aircraft and their inner workings. They examined three models: the Shahed 136 and 131 kamikaze drones and the Mohajer 6 combat drone, a reusable model resembling a tail-driven propeller plane.

A four-cylinder, two-stroke engine for propulsion: a detailed view of the propeller drive of the Shahed 136

A four-cylinder, two-stroke engine for propulsion: a detailed view of the propeller drive of the Shahed 136

Foto: Vitalii Hnidyi / REUTERS

The Mohajer 6 drone can be equipped with two laser-guided bombs. The nameplate of one of these precision guided weapons, apparently a Qaem 5-model that failed to detonate, has now revealed that the approximately 1.20-meter-long explosive device apparently wasn’t manufactured until May 2022. The date indicates that Iran delivered the weapon after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Analysis of the components used for the drones also yielded some interesting findings: Many model designations point to parts manufactured in previous years, most in 2020 and 2021. At that time, however, Iran was already under sanctions to keep weapons-grade electronics out of the regime’s hands. But the parts apparently still got into the country anyway.

A Shahed 136 drone during the investigation conducted by Conflict Armament Research

A Shahed 136 drone during the investigation conducted by Conflict Armament Research

Foto: SPLEETERS / D. Conflict Armament Research

Many components have been exported to Iran – from Europe, Asia and to a large degree from North America. "About 82 percent of these components were made in the U.S.," the report states. The team of researchers identified 70 manufacturers in 13 different countries. The organization has decided not to name the identities of the manufacturers for the time being, but officials said they are working to trace the components. The identities of some of the companies had been known prior to publication of the report. For example, the engines for the Shahed 136 and the Mohajer drones reportedly came from a company in Austria.

Clear Parallels

A look at the cabling technology shows that the drones were indeed manufactured in Iran. It was similar in all the drones studied. For example, investigators found two brands of shrinkable cable sleeves in all the models examined in Ukraine. Materials from these manufacturers had already been discovered in other drones attributed to the country, such as the Shahed 131 model, during investigations in the Middle East. There were also clear parallels to the Middle East drones in the markings on the cables themselves, for which small, labeled plastic pieces were used.

The delta-winged Shahed 136: It navigates using simple satellite technology.

The delta-winged Shahed 136: It navigates using simple satellite technology.

Foto: Roman Petushkov / REUTERS

The same applies to typical aviation instruments, such as the gyro stabilizer, also known as a gyroscope, which enables aircraft to orient themselves in the air. The mechanical gyroscope CAR found in a Mohajer 6 drone resembles one previously documented by the group in a Qasef 1 drone. That model is similar to the Shahed 136 and 131 and also belongs to the loitering munitions category, known casually as kamikaze drones. "The data from the report seems valid and very detailed," Ulrike Franke, a drone expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations in London told DER SPIEGEL.

At the same time, the experts also discovered differences to older models. According to the report, some of the drones found in Ukraine had been fitted with more modern technology, such as a software-defined radio that was in a Shahad 136. Iran’s drones have made a "significant jump in hardware" compared to earlier models, the report states, referring to autopilots and satellite navigation modules.

The circuit boards on which electronic components are mounted are now also of a much higher quality than in older designs. Overall, the capabilities of the Shahed kamikaze drones have improved significantly, finding their targets with greater accuracy than older loitering munitions from Iran, the report said.

The radio module of a drone: Russia upgraded the Iranian drones with modern technologies.

The radio module of a drone: Russia upgraded the Iranian drones with modern technologies.

Foto: Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / REUTERS

The findings raise questions about the effectiveness of sanctions. In recent years, there have been repeat attempts to deprive Iran of important goods for weapons production – by the European Union, the United States and the United Nations.

In 2015, the UN adopted Resolution 2231, which aims to stop Iran’s nuclear program. The resolution also aimed to prevent the development and construction of weapons delivery systems – ballistic missiles and cruise missiles as well as unmanned aerial vehicle systems with a range of 300 kilometers or more. That would include the Shahed 1131 and the Shahed 136. The transfer of these drones to Russia without the prior approval of the UN Security Council is a violation of the terms of the resolution.

The shift to higher tech capabilities in export weapons shows that the Iranians have found ways to circumvent the boycott. Part of this stems from the fact that it is difficult to control trade in the electronics used for such drones. "A lot of dual-use parts are built into drones, parts that are not only for military technology, but also for civilian technology."

Between Low and High Tech

These simple components aren’t subject to sales and export controls. They can also be manufactured in countries other than the ones of origin. The components can be sourced through third countries before they enter Iran from there. The manufacturing companies aren’t even necessarily aware of such transactions involving their products. "I’m fundamentally skeptical that we can stop certain countries from producing drones," Franke says.

But the CAR analysis also shows that modern and powerful drones do require high-tech components that are subject to export controls and can be included in sanctions. Franke says the main issue is better controlling and curbing the black market trading in high-end technologies.

A Mohajer 6 combat drone

A Mohajer 6 combat drone

Foto: SPLEETERS / D. Conflict Armament Research

The EU holds a similar view and is planning to tighten trade restrictions on Iran following an initial package of sanctions issued on October 20 in response to drone deliveries to Russia. "We are coordinating with partners and allies to take further sanctions against Iran responding to the proliferation of Iranian drones," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a recent security conference in Bahrain. Iran’s transfer of weapons poses a security risk for everyone, she said.

However, von der Leyen did not state which new punitive measures are being prepared against Iran and, in particular, manufacturer Shahed Aviation Industries. The United States also imposed sanctions on the company in September. Recently, the German government also wanted to consider sanctions in response to the brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran.

That von der Leyen’s assessment of the security risk posed by the Shahed drones is probably correct was recently demonstrated outside Ukraine as well. An attack was conducted off the coast of Oman on the oil tanker Pacific Zircon, which is owned by an Israeli billionaire. The authorities in the country suspect a Shahed 136 was launched on Tehran’s orders.

The U.S. Navy has also stated it believes an Iranian drone was involved. The explosive device didn’t cause any casualties, but it did tear a 76-centimeter-wide hole in the ship’s hull.

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