Propaganda can be just as essential as actual breakthroughs in drone conflicts. Everyone that builds drones seemed to be copying each other. The Sentinel was a replica of Iran’s Saegeh. Iran’s jet-powered Simorgh, the Shahed S-171, is also a replica of the US Sentinel drone, which was initially deployed by Tehran in 2014. The IRGC’s aerospace force commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, advocated for the Saegeh to be armed with up to four missiles.
Following Iran’s downing of the Sentinel in 2011, the war for the skies shifted from a world with a single drone superpower to one with numerous drone makers. This drastically altered the equation and the potential risks posed by drones. Iran’s goal was to build an independent drone army, similar to what Israel did in the 1980s, to give Tehran the same level of impunity as Washington.
Iran would bring down not only the stealth Sentinel but also the US Global Hawk in 2019 under Hajizadeh’s leadership, and Iran would send drones to Yemen. In just a few years, the globe would witness a fast transformation in drone warfare.
Iran experimented with new ideas. It built the Quds Mohajer in the 1980s, which flew for the first time in 1985. Hundreds of the small unmanned planes, each operated by two soldiers, would eventually be produced. In 1986, the first HESA Ababil was released, with 400 units produced.
The company that constructed it, HESA, was created in a former Textron plant that manufactured Bell helicopters prior to the revolution. The Ababil was a lingering munition that was fired from a truck catapult, similar to a cruise missile. Drones of the same type have been exported to Lebanon and Yemen.
Two Pioneers shot down in Iraq during the 1991 conflict may have provided Iran with information on Israeli drones. Iran may have gained access to Predator wreckage when one was lost over Syria in 2015, as well as a ScanEagle and Reaper shot down in Yemen.
Iran appeared to have no trouble depending on blueprints or images on the surface, but the true issue was trying to increase the endurance of its drones and their ability to perform surveillance, relay communications back, and target opponents.
For example, hi-tech businesses in the United States and Israel possessed composite materials, guidance, and electro-optics that were not commonly available to Iran under sanctions.
Iran revealed a wide range of new Ababil-3s for the air force and army in April 2020, stating that they were equipped with new guided-bomb capabilities. It also displayed a new Karrar drone that looks like a cruise missile.
After developing a drone force, Iran’s purpose was to utilize it to harass its adversaries. This would start in Iraq’s “near abroad” and move on to Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Gaza, and Afghanistan.
As Iran became a drone power, the US was overburdened. Iran constructed a network of drone sites along and south of the Strait of Hormuz to challenge the Americans.
The challenge for the United States and other countries was that there was no simple counter-measure to Iran’s drones. Washington had spent so much time equipping drones with technology to kill rebels that it had overlooked the need of combating drone-wielding states.