Iranian Drone Proliferation is Scaling Up and Turning More Lethal
On Sept. 6, a three-hour Russian drone attack on Odessa damaged agricultural and port infrastructure, killing one civilian. Of the 33 air weapons that Russia launched, 25 were Iranian-made Shahed drones. This attack occurs in a broader context of Iranian-Russian drone collaboration, amid recent reports of Russia building thousands of drones with Iranian assistance. The attack also demonstrates a now undeniable fact: Drones are increasingly part of the gray-zone conflict between Iran and the United States. This conflict has now also expanded beyond the Middle East, where the two countries have long existed in a state somewhere between war and peace, to theaters further afield, including Ukraine.
Iranian drone usage is following a concerning trajectory: The more these drones proliferate, the more lethal and sophisticated they become. Iran tested and refined its drone systems with sales to its proxy network before delivering them to Russia at scale during the Ukraine conflict, and its drones and manufacturing plants have also recently appeared in South America, Africa, and Central Asia. The more these drones spread, the greater the threat Iran will likely pose to U.S. and allied forces in the Middle East and beyond. The United States and its allies can counter by increasing efforts to disrupt Iran’s drone development, such as providing air defense systems to counter Iranian drones in current conflict theaters like Ukraine, and more effectively sanctioning both Iran and its partners who produce and use these drones.
Trends in Iranian-Backed Attacks Since 2020
The increase in Iranian drone usage and proliferation can be clearly seen in two of the traditional theaters of the gray-zone conflict between Iran and the United States: Iraq and Syria. Iranian-backed drone attacks against U.S. diplomatic and military installations in these two countries started in early 2021, after the January 2020 U.S. strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. While U.S. forces have successfully countered these attacks in most instances, they have emerged as an important tool for Tehran. These drones allow Iran to wage conflict against U.S. targets in Iraq and Syria while also supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine. This forces the United States and its allies to maintain a presence in this region, while also limiting their capacity for traditional military responses.
Iran has had influence in Iraq and Syria since the Iran-Iraq War, but it greatly expanded following the power vacuum created in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. intervention. Directly and through existing and new proxies such as the Badr Organization (formerly Corps), Iran increased its political and military influence within Baghdad to counter the U.S. presence. A decade later, in 2012, Iran’s military and proxies, such as Kataib Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, as well as Lebanese Hizballah, expanded into Syria to support President Bashar al Assad’s fight against a popular uprising and the Islamic State. This expansion facilitated an Iranian foothold in Syria and the creation of a direct land-and-air corridor through Iraq to Lebanon, bolstering Iran’s geopolitical presence and consolidating its influence across the Middle East. Alias groups such as Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq (translated as the “True Pledge Brigades”) work in concert or at the behest of more senior Iranian-backed groups (in this case, Kataib Hizballah) in this region.
Since 2020, rocket, drone, mortar, and improvised explosive device attacks launched by these groups have increased nearly fourfold. While rockets have overwhelmingly been the preferred weapon for Iranian-backed attacks since 2017, at least 28 drone attacks occurred since January 2021. Of these, 10 were considered successful attacks (i.e., if at least one drone was able to detonate at the target) and 15 were foiled (i.e. if at least one of the drones in the attack was effectively countered). In 2021, drones were used in at least 24 percent of all Iranian-backed attacks (which totaled at least 66), while in 2022, drones accounted for at least 20 percent of all attacks (which totaled at least 45). To date in 2023, four of the at least nine Iranian-backed attacks reported in open sources used drones — roughly 44 percent — but it is too soon to say if that indicates a notable increase in the weapon type.
Since 2021, nearly twice as many drone attacks were recorded against U.S. diplomatic and military installations in Iraq compared to Syria, according to open sources, though this could be due to a lack of information about remote parts of Syria. Bilateral relations may also play a role: For example, there were more attacks in the first half of 2022, when Iraq was in political turmoil following the 2021 parliamentary elections. This suggests Iran felt it could launch attacks when a sympathetic ally was not in power in Baghdad. Attacks could reflect Tehran’s increased pressure on Washington and Baghdad over the ongoing currency crisis facing the country. Recently, the United States stepped up money laundering investigations and has restricted the flow of the dollar into Baghdad. This negatively impacted Iran, which benefitted from the flow of U.S. dollars to counter steep inflation and sanctions.
Drone Proliferation in the Proxy Network
Iran has developed drones since the 1980s, when it started developing the technology to gain an advantage during the Iran-Iraq War. These drones have flowed from Tehran to proxies since the early 2000s. Primarily, Iran has exported drone — as well as rocket and missile — capabilities to areas where it has previously transferred other weapons systems. For instance, evidence suggests Iran transferred drone production technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen and advised in their production, allowing them to produce these systems locally. There was also drone technology transfer to Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Exporting specialized knowledge to facilitate domestic production offers Iran plausible deniability. Drone technology used by the Houthis in Yemen, Kataib Hizballah in Iraq, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip to attack the U.S. forces or their partners can be traced to Iran. Several other drone systems have followed a similar trajectory to Hizballah as well as Palestinian and Iraqi proxies. Iranian drones have also appeared in Ethiopia and are reportedly manufactured in Venezuela and Tajikistan. Bolivia and Belarus are also said to be in talks to receive Iranian drones, the latter to potentially manufacture them. The more these drones proliferate, the better they get — Iran supplies drones, such as the Qasef-1, to partners such as the Houthis, who in turn develop them, making them more lethal and using them in attacks against U.S. bases in Syria in March 2023. For example, Qasef-1s have improved flight time by nearly 60 percent and double the range when compared to older models such as the Ababil-2.
Drone technology and knowledge proliferation are also reinforced by Iran Threat Network groups, a loose proxy network of Iranian-backed non-state proxies and partners working together in a more decentralized configuration in recent years. Members of the “Axis of Resistance” — entities such as Hizballah, the Houthis, and Iranian-backed groups in Palestine, Syria, and Iraq — have cooperated with each other and Iran since the 1980s. These groups are also critical in the transfer of drone technology. Hizballah purportedly trained the Fatemiyoun Brigades, a Revolutionary Guard-affiliated militia primarily populated by Afghan fighters, in drone operation in Syria. In April 2022, reports surfaced of Hizballah-operated workshops to manufacture and repair drones and other weapons in Homs, Syria. Hizballah also reportedly provided drone training to Kataib Hizballah in Iraq in 2019 and the Houthis in 2018.
Iranian drones’ range highlights the challenges in countering them as they proliferate across the Middle East and beyond, putting growing numbers of U.S. and allied locations at risk. Drone attacks in the summer of 2022 demonstrate Iranian-backed actors’ propensity for cross-border launches, a troubling trend for both lethality and investigation of point of origin. For instance, the Aug. 15, 2022 attack on the al-Tanf garrison was reportedly launched from the Jurf al-Sakhar site (recently renamed to Jurf al-Nasr), which was used for Iranian-backed drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Samad-3 drone used (also referred to as a KAS-04 by the U.S. military) was part of the family provided to and later proliferated by the Houthis and has a reported range of roughly 1,000 miles. This radius from Jurf al-Sakhar alone covers a range of targets from the Gulf of Oman, past Israel, Lebanon, and Cyprus well into the Mediterranean Sea, to the Caspian Sea, and close to Istanbul.
A 1,000-mile radius from Jurf al-Sakhar
Drones in the Ukraine Conflict
One of the most significant uses of Iranian drones in conflict in recent years has been in the Russo-Ukrainian war. After weeks of initially denying that it was supplying Russia with drones, Iran admitted in November 2022 that it had provided them to Moscow, but claimed they were not for deployment in Ukraine. Iran’s foreign minister said that these drones were provided months before the conflict. However, Ukrainian forces have downed Iranian drones on the battlefield since October 2022 and the United States mentioned the drone provisions in July 2022. Since they admitted involvement, the extent of Iranian drone support to the Russian war effort has deepened — reports even indicate that Iranian drones were used in attacks against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. A November 2022 Washington Post investigation also indicated that Russia has taken steps to assemble Iranian drones within its borders.
Some of the drones used in Iranian-backed attacks in Iraq and Syria — notably the Shahed-136 — were also reportedly used in Ukraine to target critical infrastructure. This Shahed variant has a 1,550-mile range (500 miles longer than the Samad-3), and an 88-pound payload. The Shahed-136 is reportedly difficult to detect by radar and is said to be used in swarming attacks. Rebranded under the Russian name “Geran-2,” Russia has reportedly improved their navigation systems. Russian forces can send a drone to attack much of Ukraine from most Russian strongholds within and just outside its borders. These drones are deployed in significant volume: In a recent Russian strike, Ukrainian air defenses shot down 31 of 36 Shahed 131/136 drones and several missiles. There are growing concerns that the more compact Shahed-101 variant, previously seen in attacks in Iraq, will also be provided to Russia.
Not only has Russian development made these drones better, but Russia has also demonstrated a new way to use them. Unlike the sporadic use of Iranian drones in the low-intensity conflicts of the Middle East, the Russian use of drones in Ukraine has been targeted. While Iranian proxies use military drones in their attacks to limit casualties, the intensity and nature of the war in Ukraine meant that military and commercial drones were used in daily operations. Russia has used numerous cheap Shahed-136 drones to overwhelm the Ukrainian defense systems that pose a major threat to Russia’s fighter aircraft over Ukraine.
Russia employed fixed-wing and quadcopter drones in their sabotage and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations. Moreover, Russian loitering munitions have targeted Ukrainian tanks and artillery units. This widespread drone deployment forces Ukraine to up its stocks of expensive air defense missiles and employ the best in air defense systems, which the United States and its allies have struggled to provide. This, in turn, has provided a model to other adversaries for how to use drones to counter a major military power like the United States.
Disrupting Iranian-Backed Drone Attacks
The United States has attempted to destroy Iranian drone technology and made clear that drone attacks will not be tolerated. Of the at least 28 drones launched from 2021 to 2023 against U.S. diplomatic and military installations in Iraq and Syria, at least 20 systems were reportedly intercepted in base defense actions by U.S. and coalition forces. On Jan. 4, 2022, the international coalition reportedly shot down two explosive-laden drones approaching Ain al-Asad Air Base, an Iraqi base that hosts U.S. and coalition troops. The base defense action was just one of at least 10 counter-drone defensive actions taken by U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq since the installation of air defense systems in the country.
Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar systems installed by the United States in Iraq in March and July of 2020 have proved effective against drones. Since their installation, these systems were reportedly deployed against at least 50 percent of drone attacks — a sharp contrast with their employment in less than 20 percent of rocket attacks. When activated, Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar systems stopped 70 percent of drone attacks, according to open-source reporting. While effective, however, the number of drone attacks is only increasing and U.S. and coalition forces are only coming under greater threat. In addition to these advanced systems, there should be continued development and investment in counter-unmanned aerial systems like the Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) and handheld counter-drone guns.
U.S. forces have also targeted drone production facilities. On June 27, 2021, following several drone attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in the previous month and a half, the United States conducted precision airstrikes against Kataib Hizballah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada drone-linked facilities. Thus far, it remains unclear whether such strikes have much impact as Iranian-backed militias’ responses to airstrikes have differed. However, sustaining efforts like preemptive precision strikes on known drone production facilities are a proactive way in which the U.S. military and its partners can continue to disrupt Iran’s drone capabilities in the Middle East. Such efforts are predicated on intelligence sharing with partners, which should be continued.
Several non-kinetic actions have also addressed Iranian drone proliferation. Over the last several years, the Department of Treasury has enacted numerous sanctions against Iranian actors involved in its drone production, with an uptick after Iranian drones were discovered in Ukraine. A November 2022 Conflict Armament Research report found U.S. parts in Iranian drones and a Ukrainian intelligence assessment of a downed Shahed-136 indicated that the drone included parts from 13 different U.S. companies. In the aftermath, U.S. President Joe Biden launched a task force to investigate. In February 2023, U.S. lawmakers expressed support for a “coordinated, whole-of-government” approach to tackle Iran’s drone production. Efforts to sanction any players involved in drone production should continue and the United States should work with its partners in the region to choke international supply chains for these weapons.
Targeted sanctions would be effective in countering drone production. For example, the government could investigate whether parts or systems from Iran’s recently established Ababil-2 drone facilities in Tajikistan find their way to the Middle East or Ukraine and sanction appropriately. As of yet, the drones produced there do not seem to be deployed in Ukraine but may be in the Middle East, based on past use. More recently, some reports indicate that Iran is establishing a drone factory in Russia, shuttling support materials through offline, or “dark,” vessels in the Caspian Sea. Additionally, the United States could also enforce limits on drone production and proliferation by incorporating the removal of support to factories like those in Tajikistan and Russia into the recently resumed nuclear agreement negotiations.
The Ukrainian battlefield demonstrates the risk of failing to counter the production and proliferation of these drones. Ukrainian air defenses have become more effective and sustainable in recent months with the addition of German-made Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles and the planned provision of retired U.S. HAWK air defense missiles. However, while these and higher-end systems have downed at least 90 percent of Iranian-built drones in recent Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, they have come at a high cost and give Russia an asymmetric advantage. Ukraine is using $500,000 rockets to defeat Iranian drones that cost only about $20,000 to produce.
The frequency of Russian drone attacks and the number of Shahed drones per attack has also forced the Ukrainian armed forces to pull air defense systems away from the front lines to protect strategic infrastructure. A Ukrainian operational-level attack in the Orikhiv sector, part of the ongoing summer counteroffensive, faltered in part due to insufficient air defense capability that exposed attacking forces to sustained rotary-wing attack by defending Russian forces. The recent Ukrainian experience demonstrates Iran’s capability to produce drones at a pace that overwhelms the capacity of the high-end air defense systems that the United States has traditionally relied upon for force protection, in terms of manufacturing cost and industrial capacity.
The United States and its allies and partners should therefore prioritize the production and sale of low-cost air defense systems capable of striking the relatively slow-moving but mass-producible Iranian drone systems and increase transfers to partners threatened by Iranian proxies. They should also maintain pressure on Iran and its allies — through targeted sanctions and diplomacy — to stop the production and use of these drones. As the gray-zone conflict between Iran and the United States deepens, disrupting Tehran’s drone proliferation will become increasingly imperative to advance peace and stability in the region and beyond.
Nakissa Jahanbani is a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Center and an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy. She holds a doctorate in political science from the University at Albany, State University of New York.
Muhammad Najjar received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 2023, where he specialized in conflict resolution and technology. He previously worked as a Syria political assistant at the U.S. Department of State, as well as at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.
Benjamin Johnson is an Army Special Forces officer. He holds a master’s degree in foreign service from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where he was a General Wayne A. Downing Scholar.
Caleb Benjamin is an editorial intern for Lawfare blog and a graduate of Dartmouth College. He previously worked at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy, Brunswick Group, and the Democratic Erosion Consortium.
Muhammad al-‘Ubaydi is a research associate at the Madison Policy Forum. Previously, he was a researcher at the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy.
The views, conclusions, and recommendations in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
Author’s note: The authors find it important to use the phrase, “At least X number of attacks,” as this information is collected exclusively from open sources and is therefore subject to potential bias. The collection of data from certain parts of Syria is difficult given the lack of independent information infrastructure present in the country; many reports of attacks come from U.S. forces themselves. In contrast, reports from Iraq come not only from U.S. and independent sources but also from Iraqi security sources.
The authors would like to thank Seth Loertscher for his vision, advice, and support in the formation of this dataset and the writing of this article.
Image: Wikimedia Commons