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Iranian Drone Manufacturing Is Unstoppable

April 9, 2021
From left-to-right, the Kaman-22 drone, an ECM pod, a laser-guided bomb, and a laser targeting pod. Via Iranian media.

Hardly four months into 2021 and the year is becoming a watershed for Iran’s unmanned systems. The armed forces are close to adopting a new combat UAV that, by the looks of it, resembles the Predator-series made by General Atomics. But in this case looks are deceiving and the many comparisons made of the Kaman-22 pictured above with the MQ-9 Reaper are unhelpful. The use of a monoplane airframe with a distinct nose bulge and a V-tail is universal for long endurance drones–whether it’s the Israeli Hermes 900 or the Turkish Anka–and doesn’t suggest a link to General Atomics’ Predator-series. Furthermore, the dimensions and layout of the Kaman-22 are incompatible with its older peers from abroad.

The Kaman-22 was revealed in late February at a curated unveiling ceremony together with a selection of mission systems and munitions arranged beside it. Its wings were even loaded with small laser-guided bombs and what looked like an external subsystem hanging from its belly. Another armed drone was revealed during the previous months called the Kaman-12, a twin-boom model with a large three-blade propeller engine, and it had four small laser-guided bombs under its wings. But the payload for the Kaman-22 is undoubtedly greater since, if all its hardpoints carried munitions, it can launch as many as half a dozen bombs or twice as many missiles.

Iranian media claim the air force or IRIAF envisions the Kaman-22 as a long-range strike aircraft that loiters over the mission area for extended periods. Its performance characteristics may not match the Hermes 900 or the Reaper in terms of endurance although Iranian media claim it’s able to travel across 3,000 kilometers. This figure is open to interpretation since, like all aircraft, actual range is limited by engine type and fuel use and while the three-blade turbopropeller on the Kaman-22 is unidentified if it produces more than 150 horsepower it can manage flight times reaching 20 hours. It’s more credible for the Kaman-22 to have a 1,500 km flight radius instead of an exaggerated flight range and a maximum ceiling of 26,000 feet; this puts the entire Arabian peninsula and nearby countries within its reach.

Another curious detail about the Kaman-22 is the pivoting camera or gimbal under its nose bubble. It’s very common for drone models to have infrared and thermal optics housed in their gimbals. Whether this applies to the Kaman-22 is debatable although it’s certain the gimbal it has at present is purely for surveillance. Its size and shape, however, appear too modest for a targeting instrument such as a laser designator. This could explain why one of the devices shown at the Kaman-22’s unveiling was a laser targeting pod or “sniper pod” meant to be carried under the airframe. It’s interesting to note the combination of a locally made Paveway II laser-guided bomb and an electronic countermeasure (ECM) pod alongside the “sniper pod.”

The ECM pod itself looks like a copy of the ALQ-119 that was developed for the F-4 Phantom–it’s worth recalling the Iranian air force were once the biggest operators of the multirole fighter in the 1970s. For the ALQ-119 to be adapted for use in the Kaman-22 means it’s anticipated to enter hostile airspace and possibly jam ground-based air defenses prior to or during bomb or missile strikes. If this is part of the Kaman-22’s capabilities then Israel and the GCC need to re-evaluate their own reliance on ground-based air defenses as these are often lacking–the brazen attacks on Saudi oil processing infrastructure and repeated drone incursions from Yemen against Saudi airspace is proof this weakness.

It’s interesting how the Iranian copy of the AGM-114 Hellfire wasn’t on display with the Kaman-22. Neither were air-to-air missiles since drones are suited for this role as well. With the speed and volume of Iranian drone production the Kaman-22 can be ready for actual missions before 2021 is out. Even if Iran does have internal security threats that justify the use of armed drones, its activities in the region present varied opportunities for deployments against its adversaries. The US military’s CENTCOM must acknowledge the implications of the Kaman-22’s effect on IRGC operations since Iranian drone flights over bases and large assets like aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf are an immediate threat to American personnel.

When the Iranian armed forces accept the Kaman-22 that’s been improved with necessary changes the resulting expansion in its drone arsenal will be significant. Other Middle Eastern countries possess token drone fleets, regardless if these are armed or not, with limited usefulness. Meanwhile, Iran has as many as 10 different types of armed fixed-wing drones and what might now be the largest inventory of loitering munitions.

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