Iran’s Game of Drones: The Growing Threat from the Sky

Iran’s Game of Drones: The Growing Threat from the Sky

Should the U.S. military be worried?

Ansar Allah, also known as “The Houthis Movement,” is another Shiite group that has been enjoying IRGC support for years. Yemen, where the group operates, serves as an excellent testing ground for Iranian military equipment such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, anti-aircraft portable systems, anti-tank guided missiles, drone boats and armed drones. 


Although the Houthis claim that they develop their drones by themselves, evidence proves that the IRGC has been supplying them with surveillance and suicide drones in addition to ballistic missile—all in pieces to be assembled and used—against Saudi Arabia and the UAE at least since 2015.

A 2018 report by a United Nations panel of experts on Yemen concluded that the Houthis’ Qatef-1 suicide drone, which is widely used as a one-use weapon, is actually identical to the Ababil-T, manufactured by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries. This outcome was also confirmed by a research group called Conflict Armament Research that had the chance to examine seized drones which were used by Houthi.

Most Houthi-Iranian drones are meant to be used as a small missile. Their goal is to neutralize patriot missiles batteries and target critical infrastructure such as oil facilities, oil pipelines, military bases, civilian and military airports, etc. On January 10, 2019, a Houthi drone targeted a Yemeni government military parade, killing several military personnel and senior officials, including the country’s intelligence chief and the deputy chief of staff. Another critical mission was executed on May 14 where armed drones targeted two oil pump stations around 200km and 450 km west of Riyadh, the Saudi capital, forcing the national petroleum company (Aramco) to briefly suspend pipeline operations.

Although the Houthis claimed responsibility for launching the coordinated bombing campaign by seven drones against Saudi oil installations deep inside the country’s territory, U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence believe the attacks had originated in southern Iraq by pro-Iran armed militias, given the proximity of the area and the new level of sophistication of the involved attacks.

Countering the Iranian Drone Threat

The proliferation of Iran’s armed drones in the region is becoming a reality right now. Not only Iran is manufacturing more drones than ever, but also its proxies are becoming more familiar with this technology. In this context, with small, cheap, and relatively primitive drones, Iran and its proxies have demonstrated that they are able to execute increasingly sophisticated asymmetric operations that pose a security threat and inflict a lot of damage to their adversaries. This tactic could serve as a model for Tehran or its proxies in the future.

Up until now, efforts to take down Iranian drones in the region—whether it be surveillance, armed or Kamikaze drones—can be characterized as being random and reactive. Most Iranian-made drones that were used recently in several countries in the Middle East were shot down either by jets or by air-defense missile systems. Shooting down such drones with a missile that can cost around $3 million is certainly not a sustainable equation in terms of cost-efficiency. The Iranian regime would love to lock his adversaries in such an equation for a long period of time.

The latest encounter in the Gulf between the USS Boxer and one of Iran’s drones offers us a glimpse on how addressing these challenges might be in the future. A new counter-drone system has been reportedly used to shoot down the drone. The “Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System” (LMADIS) uses a radar and cameras to scan and detect drones. It is also equipped with identification technology to differentiate between friendly and hostile targets. Once the target is identified and locked, the system uses radio frequencies to jam the hostile drone. Countering the mounting challenge of Iran’s drones would certainly require such creative-technical based solutions in the future, however, there is also an equal need to focus on proactive measures that would address these challenges.

Ali Bakeer is an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher.

Image: Reuters.