Iran is sharing its experience of operating UAVs with Russia, including three years of operations over Iraq and Syria. The cooperation started in October 2013, when Russian air force commander Gen. Victor Bondarev visited Tehran and was presented with a local copy of the Scan Eagle UAV. Both Iran and Russia have operated small UAVs over Syria, but a new dimension to Iran’s activities there became apparent on June 8, when a U.S. Air Force F-15E shot down an Iranian-made UAV “similar in size to the MQ-1 Predator.”
This medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) vehicle was later identified as a Shahed 129 UCAV. Operated by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), the drone had attacked Syrian rebels operating around At-Tanf who are trained and supported by the U.S. The Shahad 129 has a claimed range of 1,700 km and a 24-hour endurance, and can carry various air-launch munitions including guided missiles. It was not the first Iranian UAV to be shot down by rebel fire, but all previous incidents involved relatively small and inexpensive Ababil and Mohajer series drones for close-in tactical reconnaissance and surveillance.
The Russian expeditionary forces in Syria are also operating a total of 80 small UAVs, such as the Orlan-10, Granat, Eleron, Zala-426-16 and Forpost (which is a licensed copy of the IAI Searcher Mk.2). Some time after Bondarev’s visit to Tehran, the Russian MoD stated that Iranian drones, along with those from Israel (IAI Bird Eye-400, I-View Mk150 and the like acquired in 2012), were being used for evaluation and for the training of Russian UAV operators. Recently, Russian media has reported the testing of a United 40 Block 5 UCAV with claimed 100-hour endurance that was acquired from the UAE’s Adcom Systems.
Although there is no information on whether Moscow has acquired any MALE UCAVs from Tehran, practical experience of operating such equipment, especially in a war zone, is of great interest to the Russian military and industry as they are in the early phase of testing new drone types.
No UCAVs are known to have entered service with the Russian military yet. RAC MiG demonstrated the Skat UCAV back in 2009, but the Russian MoD opted for proposals from other makers. In 2011 the ministry awarded contracts. Last year, Gromov’s Flight Test and Research Institute (local acronym LII) began flight trials of the Orion made by RET Kronshtadt. It has a gross weight of just over one tonne. Also undergoing testing is the five-tonne Altius-M developed by Sokol design bureau.
Deputy defense minister, procurement, Yuri Borisov said that four Russian UCAV projects “that solve their tasks in tactical, operative and strategic depth” are nearing completion, while “we have closed down several other projects.”
The Sukhoi design bureau has been working on heavyweight UAVs, including one with an mtow of 20 tonnes that is expected to fly next year. The Yakovlev design bureau is developing a pilotless version of the Yak-130 armed trainer.