But while the weapons could provide a significant boost to Russia’s war effort against Ukraine, the transfer was marred by technical difficulties, United States security officials and an allied government said in interviews. In early tests by the Russians, Iran’s drones experienced numerous malfunctions, officials said.
“There are a few bugs in the system,” said an Allied security official whose government was closely monitoring the transfer. The official spoke on condition of anonymity and that his nationality will not be revealed to discuss sensitive information. “The Russians are not satisfied,” the official said.
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The first delivery of the Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series drones to Moscow is believed to be the first delivery of a planned transfer of hundreds of Iranian UAVs of various types, officials of the Biden administration said, also speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The arrival of the Iranian drones could fill a crucial gap in the Russian military campaign in Ukraine. Russia, which has 1,500 to 2,000 military surveillance UAVs, has relatively few attack drones of the type that can hit targets deep in enemy territory. Ukraine, on the other hand, has used Turkish-made combat UAVs to destroy Russian armor, trucks and artillery since the first weeks of the conflict.
The Biden administration warned in July that Russia was preparing to acquire large numbers of Iranian drones to conduct air-to-ground strikes, electronic warfare and battlefield targets in Ukraine.
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported last week that Iran had begun delivering the drones. But details of the transfer, including the types of UAVs delivered and their seemingly mediocre performance so far, have not been previously reported.
In interviews, US and allied security officials said Russian planes flew to an Iranian military facility in mid-August to pick up the drones over several days. The Allied security official said the initial shipment included two models of Shahed drones, the Shahed-129 and Shahed-191, as well as the Mohajer-6. All of them are considered Iran’s best military drones, designed for both attack and surveillance.
The deal was negotiated over several months by a team led by Brig. Gene. Seyed Hojjatollah Qureishi, the head of the Iran Defense Ministry’s supply and logistics division, and the Russian military attache in Tehran, the security official said. Under the agreement, Iranian technical experts traveled to Russia to help set up the systems, and Russian military officers underwent training in Iran, the official said.
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Iranian officials had reacted obliquely to US claims about the imminent delivery of drones. Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani last month acknowledged “Iranian and Russian technological cooperation” but said Tehran prefers diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Ukraine. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who was asked last month about the reported deal to acquire Iranian UAVs, said the Russian presidency had “no comments on the matter”.
Although Iran has supplied military drones to armed proxy groups such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen, it has rarely, if ever, tested such models on the kinds of advanced electronic jamming and anti-aircraft systems used in Ukraine, said Michael Knights, a military and security expert with the Washington Institute of Near Eastern Policy.
Iran has shown its ability to carry out “swarm” drone strikes — collecting multiple suicide drones against a single target — and Western governments will closely monitor whether Iran’s UAVs can conduct such operations in an intensely contested environment. battlefield, Knights said.
“These Iranian drones have never operated in an advanced air defense environment before,” he said. “The closest they’ve come to that is a[Houthi strikes against] Saudi Arabia or against US bases in Iraq, and they have generally not done well. So I wouldn’t be surprised if in a more intense environment like Ukraine they would have problems.”
For Russia, the Ukraine conflict has shown that the country has failed to develop a line of combat drones comparable to those used by the United States for two decades, experts say. “They understand they needed those drones in large quantities yesterday,” said Sam Bendett, a Russian military analyst with the Virginia-based research group CNA.
And Russia really only has two countries it can turn to to “close the capacity gap” in combat drones: China and Iran. But China is deeply entangled in the global supply chain and does not want to supply combat UAVs because that would likely lead to US sanctions, he said.
That leaves Iran, which is not similarly exposed and whose capabilities are homegrown, “which is what the Russians are going for,” Bendett said. “Iran is also a Russian ally. So it’s the only real choice left. Iran represents a very interesting case of a domestic industry that grew up amid sanctions. And it represents a fairly robust capability.”
The United States began equipping Ukraine in June with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HIMARS, which can launch multiple missiles with precision at Russian military targets nearly 80 miles away. The HIMARS have enabled Ukraine to destroy Russian ammunition depots and logistics supplies far behind the front lines.
“The Russians have no way of limiting the damage HIMARS is doing to them now,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, president of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank. “They hope attack drones can help.”
Other NATO-supplied long-range artillery, such as M777 howitzers that can launch precision-guided rounds, have also contributed to the challenge Russia faces, said Rob A. Lee, an expert on the Russian military and a senior fellow at the Foreign Office. Policy Research Institute.
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“One of Russia’s biggest problems right now is that the Air Force can’t ban things behind Ukrainian lines,” Lee said. “They don’t have many long-range UAVs that can hit targets behind enemy lines. So they cannot prevent Ukraine from strengthening its positions and replenishing its stocks. … And many of their UAVs are shot down or lost to electronic warfare.”
While Russia is apparently trying to ramp up domestic production of such drones, it is being hampered by Western sanctions and export controls, which have halted the flow of semiconductor chips essential to the production of such weapons, analysts said.
“They rely on the black market, but the needs are huge,” Alperovitch said. “You need chips for everything from precision guided missiles to airplanes to tanks, not to mention non-military items in their own domestic industries. So there is a lot of demand in Russia for chips, and if Russia can get fully-built drones from Iran, it won’t have to use its precious supply of chips on the black market to make its own drones.”
Analysts said the transfer of Iranian drones is unlikely to affect ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and world powers, which are on a different track and have a different goal: to eliminate Iran’s capacity to quickly build a nuclear bomb. But further strengthening military ties between Iran and Russia is in itself a worrying development for the United States and its allies, experts said.
“The ever closer alliance gives Russia some depth in military procurement, which will be welcome in Moscow,” said Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group. “The Greater Message – That Might Be Lost On” [Russian President Vladimir] Putin for now – is that one of the world’s allegedly leading militaries should turn to Iran for help with key technologies, showing how empty their inventory is.”