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Loitering Munitions Revived Iranian Air Power

February 22, 2022
The Arash loitering munition. Via Iranian media.

In the span of just four short years the Islamic Republic’s aerospace and military-industrial sector developed what could be the largest drone arsenal in the Middle East. While Israel’s own unmanned aircraft are premium “defense” exports coveted by governments around the world Iran has at least surpassed the Israelis in production volume thanks to strong demand by its various military branches. Since 2021 one of the heaviest and most powerful loitering munitions–drones that surveil and then crash on their target–ever developed called the Arash has become a clear favorite among numerous other models.

The Arash first came to prominence at an outrageous exhibition for the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) leadership in early 2021. At the time, scores of new drones were displayed at an airfield while specific models occupied an indoor exhibition filled with armaments. Among the drones outside the venue was the Arash (pictured above) with a fuselage shaped like a rifle bullet and a fixed delta wing configuration. Details about it soon trickled out thanks to occasional publicity by Iranian media. Like other domestic military products made by state-owned companies the Arash is a simple and cost-effective precision weapon system.

Because of its size and weight the Arash is launched with a separating booster until the propellers accelerate and stabilize its flight path. It’s launchable from many different transports, including pickup trucks, although a containerized launcher used to be its original arrangement for its chosen transport such as a flatbed truck–the same as Israeli loitering munitions. Details about its engine type, altitude and speed, flight endurance and actual arrange are still kept from the public but it was claimed when the Arash was being tested in mid-2021 it could travel over 1,000 kilometers. The size of its warhead has never been revealed either. Iranian media have shown the Arash destroying mock up vehicles and small structures.

The scale of Iranian mass-production when it comes to drones is so great that it can be assumed their costs are minimal. If this is indeed the case then loitering munitions assembled in Iran are filling the gap left by the air force’s mixed fleet of fighter jets. Their effectiveness is proven beyond doubt. The foremost example were the attacks on two Saudi oil refining sites in 2019 where a drone swarm successfully disabled a large targets. Wreckage from the surprise attack carried out on September 14 revealed parts of “flying wing” drones that navigated a distance beyond several hundred kilometers without being detected. Propeller driven flying wing airframes are common among Iranian loitering munitions and these are seen in the Arash and its smaller sibling the Kian. Other “kamikaze drones” have different layouts such as the fixed wing Sammad-series delivered to Iraqi militias and Ansar Allah in Yemen.

The IRGC and its secretive Quds Force are the likeliest perpetrators of further long-range drone strikes since disabling Abqaiq and Khurais. In mid-2021, as the Arash garnered a little news coverage in Iran, a mysterious projectile hit an oil tanker sailing the Arabian Sea. CENTCOM’s intervention revealed two of the ship’s crew were killed as a result. Meanwhile, Iran’s favored militias in Iraq conducted monthly drone attacks on US forces throughout 2021 albeit with little effect. As recently as last December suspected Iranian-made drones almost struck a base occupied by the US military near the Iraq-Syria border but were foiled by an intercepting RAF Tornado fighter-bomber.

There could be as many as a dozen models of loitering munitions now possessed by the regular armed forces, the Artesh, and the IRGC. These are mostly propeller driven propeller driven and scale smaller than the Arash and many have been transferred to Tehran’s regional proxies. A popular model is the Ababil, which has repeatedly violated Saudi Arabia’s airspace thanks to persistent attacks by Ansar Allah, but other dangerous loitering munitions are the Shahed 136 that resembles the Israeli-made Harop and are carried in false shipping containers pulled by trucks.

Iranian drones and missiles are considered its most effective homegrown military technology. (Artillery and small arms are improving at a rapid clip.) Taken together they allow the Artesh and the IRGC to engage in “below threshold” conflict that drags out for years and exhausts their adversaries. It worked during campaigns in Iraq and Syria against Sunni militants and is now being unleashed on CENTCOM and the GCC.

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