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Iranian Combat Drones Have Reached Europe

October 2, 2022
A graphic using public imagery of Shahed-136 loitering munitions shared by Ukraine Media Center on its social media.

With Ukraine facing a new aerial threat to its troops on the ground and the cities of Odesa and Mykolaiv its government wasted no time coming up with a response. On September 23 the foreign ministry dealt a “revocation of accreditation” to Iran’s ambassador as well as sanctions on the embassy, whose staff must now leave. While this isn’t a full severance of diplomatic ties it served as a public warning that Kyiv won’t tolerate Tehran’s arms deliveries. Although the Russian Federation never purchased weapon systems from Iran–it’s the other way around–the circumstances of its brutal war on Ukraine created a watershed moment for the Islamic Republic’s opaque commerce in weaponry.

The White House in particular was the first to claim Russia was buying combat drones from Iran in substantial quantities. It was National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan who told reporters that “hundreds” of UAVs were being prepared for delivery on July 12. A few days later the White House told its press pool Russian VIPs were visiting Iran to expedite the deal and the same message was repeated in August. It wasn’t until months later when evidence proving this began surfacing online. By early September photos of wing fragments from a wreckage went viral. The winglet shown on one photo was printed with a serial number and the designation “Geran-2” in Russian. Mainstream news didn’t confirm the use of Iranian drones, which turned out to be loitering munitions, until The Wall Street Journal broke the story that cited Ukrainian troops with firsthand experience being targeted by them–the specific model is a rebranded Shahed-136 although when Ukraine’s military retrieved a damaged unit they ID’d it as the Shahed-131, which is one of two models Iran supplied.

The Shahed-131/136 belongs to a new generation of Iranian loitering munitions, or low speed precision bombs, that were introduced since 2020. By 2021 a variant was already spotted in Yemen where Ansar Allah assembled a sizable fleet of loitering munitions to offset their weakness in air power. The Shahed-136 received its first exposure in Iranian media during the “Great Propeht 17” exercises in late 2021. Iran’s combat drones are still underrated despite their 40-year history and an intimidating combat record such as spectacular attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil refineries. The Shahed-136 is a propeller-driven model with a delta wing layout and a cylindrical fuselage. Based on reports from Ukrainian media as shared by the military each “Geranium” or “Geran-1/2” is able to fly hundreds of kilometers before reaching its target. The coastal city of Odesa, which has been spared a full-scale assault by Russia’s navy until now, has been targeted multiple times since September 23. In the final week of that month almost three dozen loitering munitions were deployed against Ukrainian forces in the southwest as revealed by the General Staff. (See below.)


Although the Russian military employed their own loitering munitions such as the KUB and Lancet-3 since the beginning of the war these proved ineffective because of their small warheads. The Geran-2, by comparison, travels farther with a sizable payload and is very accurate. Considering its size the Geran-2 is transported and launched the same way as a road mobile cruise missile: from the bed of a truck with a disposable rocket booster under the fuselage. Once mid-air its propeller kicks in and dual use satellite navigation allows it to reach its intended coordinates. The exact guidance system of the Geran-2 is speculative; nobody can tell yet if there’s a person-in-the-loop or targets are painted by other aircraft. (At least one Mohajer-6 medium altitude combat drone has been captured in the Black Sea.) How Russia’s military moves and prepares Geran-2’s for their strike missions is unknown too. It’s suspected the command and control hub for the Geran-2’s is located in Crimea. Given the daily record of strikes the original US claims on the numbers delivered to Russia are in all likelihood correct–there’s now a growing stockpile of Geran-2’s at Russia’s disposable thanks to Iran, whose engineers helped establish an assembly line for them.

The ongoing war in Ukraine isn’t the first European conflict the Islamic Republic has gotten involved with. During the 1990s the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) established a logistical network in Bosnia-Herzegovina to arm and assist the country’s embattled Muslims. (Arms deliveries to Bosniaks may have included rocket launchers and anti-tank missiles.) But this was a small effort compared to what’s unfolding in Ukraine three decades since. Regardless of the diplomatic fallout Iran’s state-owned military-industries have earned an unlikely success after years spent marketing their wares; most recent being the Army 2022 exhibition outside Moscow. Now they have Russia for a client and a combination of worldwide exposure and illicit profits are theirs to enjoy.

Thanks to a United Nations arms embargo that expired in 2020 Iran can legitimately export its homegrown weapon systems anywhere. These span a vast arsenal whose range and firepower are effective enough to shape the outcomes of a war.

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