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Iran Makes All The Drones It Needs

August 26, 2022
Via Iranian media.

Exercises held in the summer of 2022 revealed new vertical take off drone models operated by the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and the regular army and navy that have never been seen before. The importance of these aircraft is how they continue to advance and transform the real time intelligence and situational awareness Iranian commanders need. The existence of three distinct fixed wing vertical take off and landing (VTOL) models also serves as proof that Iranian manufacturing processes for shaping composite materials like carbon fiber used on lightweight airframes have matured since the 2010s. The same goes for their systems integration and electro-optical parts fabricating, whether these are imported from abroad or not, in the assembly process for VTOL drones.

Three distinct VTOL models have been shown by Iranian media since July, when naval exercises were held to showcase drone swarms, and what they have in common aside from quadrotor layouts are small airframes. It appears the Iranian navy are the primary operators for these although the ground forces, and soon the IRGC, may receive their own. Lightweight VTOL drones found broad applications among naval branches worldwide in the 2010s as these provided a convenient surveillance and reconnaissance tool with superior performance especially in their mission endurance when compared to a helicopter. An obvious advantage of VTOL drones is they don’t require airstrips or catapults for launching them and their dimensions allow for easy assembly and disassembly. For the Iranian navy (IRIN), who are burdened with a diverse and outdated fleet, at least two VTOL drones have twin-boom layouts while an even smaller model has a single tail. The three have open ports to fit a gimbal carrying the drone’s optical payload. (See photo above.)

The largest model among the three has a twin-boom layout and five propellers, with four parallel to its wings and a push propeller behind its fuselage, and features an elongated wingspan with curved edges. Its landing gear are four small detachable legs under the fuselage and wings. With details about it withheld by the IRIN the best assessment of its performance is checking a similar commercial model. It turns out its closest analog supplied by a Chinese manufacturer is able to take off from any surface and has a three to four hour mission time. Depending on the engine type, which can be a hybrid multifuel and electric model, maximum flight altitude is either between 10,000 feet and 15,000 ft., which is the threshold for medium altitude drones. Regardless of the distance it covers while airborne the likeliest role the IRIN is using this model for is target assessment and tracking–the navy’s submarines have proven capable of launching cruise missiles. An interesting detail about this twin-boom VTOL model are the twin antennae on its wings since these can indicate the extent of its datalink, whether it’s at least 20 kilometers or much farther.

During exercises in July and then August the IRIN deployed submarines where operators tested VTOL drone launches and flew them over open sea. Another small fixed wing drone was tested by launching it with a small catapult from the conning tower of a Fateh-class submarine. The Fatehs have a smaller displacement compared to the navy’s old Kilo-class submarines supplied by Russia in the 1990s. Iran’s naval shipbuilding program does have a timeline for additional submarines and a new class displacing 3,000 tons.

Within the Middle East there’s no doubt Iran and Türkiye are competing neck-to-neck in the mass-production of military drones. The crucial difference is Türkiye enjoys inputs from and leverage over its NATO allies and Ankara has an export policy running at full throttle. Meanwhile, Iran has only begun to look for viable end users for its military drones. In July the Biden administration claimed a deal was underway for Iran to train and equip the Russian military with a substantial number of drones. But pertinent details remain elusive. What the appearance of these naval VTOL models prove beyond doubt is Iranian drone manufacturing is on a large-scale and all technological barriers have been overcome. So it’s possible many different types of Iranian drones are absorbed by the Russian military at some point in the future but ultimate proof has yet to emerge.

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