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Iran Just Showed Off Its Cutting Edge Combat Drone

October 5, 2018

The Saegheh on display. Via Fars News/Wikimedia Commons.

On October 1 Iranian media vigorously promoted the launch of ballistic missiles at a terrorist base outside the country. It was soon revealed the target was the town of Albu Kamal, also known as “Al Bukamal,” where alleged takfiris serving the Islamic State were hiding out after orchestrating the terrorist attacks in Ahvaz on September 22.

The incident in Ahvaz, where gunmen killed 25 bystanders at a parade ground, happened during commemorative activities to mark the Sacred Defense or the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq War that was fought from 1980 until 1988. The missile launches two weeks later were meant as Tehran’s official retribution and billed as “Muharram Strike.”

According to Iranian media, the IRGC’s rocket forces deployed a half dozen ballistic missiles on October 1 to bombard Albu Kamal whose territory is spread along the western banks of the Euphrates River. The hotly contested town is part of Syria’s Deir Ezzor province and just minutes away from the border with Iraq. The IRGC launched two types of ballistic missiles, the Qiam and the Zolfaghar, and they all reached their targets.

This was the third publicized missile salvo from Iran since 2017 and it happened barely a month after a fortress used by Kurdish separatists was nearly destroyed by Fateh missiles. Recall how on June 19 2017 Iranian media publicized a salvo of Shahab-3 missiles striking ISIS camps in Deir Ezzor as retribution for a suicide assault on Tehran’s parliament building. Even when some analysts derided the accuracy of the 2017 missile salvo, the event still proved how far the Islamic Republic’s firepower can reach despite its antiquated air force.

But the publicity surrounding “Muharram Strike” on October 1 was significant for another reason. For the first time ever, Iranian media claimed a flight of attack drones followed the missile strikes on Albu Kamal and released ordnance. Iranian media were once again complicit sharing authentic footage of these followup airstrikes that revealed a unique airframe was deployed–the Saegheh.

The Saegheh or “Saeqeh” is acknowledged as a reverse engineered Lockheed Martin RQ-170 Sentinel that’s used by the US Air Force (USAF) for long-range intelligence gathering. In 2011 a Sentinel disappeared inside Iran and the missing drone was subsequently shown off to Iranian media. Then in October 2016 the IRGC unveiled a drone resembling the Sentinel but equipped for dropping ordnance. In February this year a Saegheh launched from an Iranian base in Palmyra, Syria, was shot down over Israel.

The ensuing wave of airstrikes almost escalated to a full-blown war. As Israeli F-16 scrambled to neutralize the Iranian base in Palmyra, Syrian air defenses destroyed one of the jets. This led to another punitive raid by Israel’s fighters that involved multiple strikes across southern Syria. A weird stalemate eventually settled over Syrian airspace where Tel Aviv keeps authorizing attacks with standoff munitions on sensitive locations while Tehran keeps fortifying its own facilities.

But the combination of a ballistic missile salvo and a drone swarm loaded with bombs that targeted Albu Kamal on October 1 is more than just a propaganda coup. It successfully demonstrated Iran’s offensive weapons at a time when it’s under extreme duress, diplomatically and economically, because of a renewed US-led effort to roll back Tehran’s gains in the region. The performance of the Saeghehs in particular, although modest, should alert Tel Aviv and other neighboring capitals to take the IRGC’s technological advances seriously.

For the reader’s benefit, below is a helpful guide to the missiles Iran has launched at Iraq and Syria since 2017:

  • Shahab-3 – The Shahab-3 is the most capable among the Shahab lineage that traces its origins to North Korean No Dong road mobile ballistic missiles. It has a range of 1,200 kilometers and is deployed from a TEL vehicle. The Shahabs as a whole are often dismissed as faulty and inaccurate.
  • Qiam – The Qiam is an outlier among the IRGC’s ballistic missiles. While it can be mistaken for an older Soviet vintage “Scud” or R-77 it’s actually a recent design with surprising accuracy. Its range is estimated to reach several hundred kilometers and Qiams are distinct for the absence of guidance fins on its airframe.
  • Zolfaghar – The Zolfaghars are the newest iterations of the long-running Fateh lineage that were based on large diameter rocket artillery. It’s believed to have a greater payload and improved guidance compared to the Fateh-110/110A/110B and the Fateh Mobin. The Fateh’s design was also borrowed for an alleged “supersonic” anti-ship missile called the Khalij Fars or Persian Gulf.
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