Here Come Iran’s Drones

The U.S. military recently concluded its annual two-week exercise known as Black Dart. Conducted every year since 2002, but only open to select media for the past two years, Black Dart brings together government, academic institutions and private companies to test out their latest technologies designed for a single objective: confronting and neutralizing an enemy unmanned aerial vehicle (or UAV, also known as a drone). Black Dart, at its core, is a manifestation of the military’s recognition that the United States does not have a monopoly on the development or acquisition of drones – and that this technology has already made its way to the bad guys, even if ours is much more sophisticated than theirs.

American policymakers would be well-served to keep Black Dart in the back of their minds as they contemplate the Obama administration’s deal with Iran on its nuclear program.

Whatever one believes about whether the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, the deal will undeniably free up more money for Iran, with various sources estimating between $100 and $150 billion in the form of unfrozen assets and other sanctions relief. And there is no real dispute about how the new funds would be put to use – members of President Barack Obama’s own team, including national security adviser Susan RiceGen. Paul Selva, the new vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and acting Undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes Adam Szubin, have all acknowledged that Iran will use that money to ramp up its sponsorship of global jihadist terrorism.

But what might that look like, up to $150 billion later?

There is a high probability that a newly cash-infused Iran will mean not just more terrorist attacks against our troops and our allies, but more terrorist attacks with more advanced hardware. One item to be especially concerned about in this regard: Iranian drones.

The Defense Intelligence Agency indicated back in 2010 that “Iran has an active [drone] program and two families of reconnaissance, target and lethal UAVs.” The level of sophistication of this “active” program is a bit of a mixed picture; while Iranian drones at the moment are not nearly as advanced as those of the United States or Israel, some analysts have noted Iran’s production of its Shahed 129 drone, roughly the same size as the American Predator and thought to be armed with air-to-ground missiles.

Others have observed, however, that Iran has highly inflated its drone program’s progress over the years, exaggerating capabilities – even downright faking them – for propaganda purposes. It’s therefore difficult to know exactly what Iran’s drones can do, though at a minimum, they appear to be capable of aerial surveillance and targeting assistance for missiles and other ordnance fired from elsewhere.

Whatever its present state, the Iranian drone program has prompted the Navy to experiment with ways to bring down drones in the Persian Gulf, culminating in the successful testing of the directed energy weapon known as the Laser Weapon System on board the USS Ponce in late 2014. While the system was tested for countering small boat attacks (in the interest of preventing another USS Cole disaster) as well as drones, in both scenarios the military is seeking to address the reality that low-tech enemy platforms can still be problematic, even lethal, for U.S. forces (though the enemy drone-and-small-boat-problem is just one of several reasons the military is interested in directed energy).

But U.S. forces are not the only targets. Iran’s main proxy, Hezbollah, has already made use of Iranian drones since 2004 in Lebanon – including an incursion of a drone that made it 140 miles into Israel, 20 miles away from Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona – while Hamas has also periodically fielded drones of limited capability from Gaza, though there is no evidence yet of Hamas having received drones directly from Iran.

As is the case with drones used by the Iranian military itself, the fact that Hezbollah and Hamas drones have a long way to go to catch up to those of Israel and America is beside the point: When you’re Hezbollah or Hamas, your weapons only need to be sophisticated enough to be that much more brutal and indiscriminate. While the precision associated with American and Israeli drones is for the purpose of carefully selecting targets in ways that minimize civilian casualties and the military’s footprint in general, Iran and its proxies are looking to drones to give them the precision needed to inflict more casualties, not less. Even a drone that fires zero weapons of its own, but can provide the kind of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to better guide rockets fired from southern Lebanon or Gaza, is a tactical upgrade from the Hezbollah or Hamas perspective.

And this is all within the realm of what Iran can do with drones now, before the nuclear deal goes through. What kinds of improvements can Iran make to its drones once the money starts rolling in?

Importantly, though, this deal is not limited to freeing up money that Iran can use to develop its own weapons. The deal also entails lifting the conventional arms embargo on Iran in another five years, and that means a clearer pathway for other nations’ drones making their way to Tehran – including, most worryingly, those coming from China.

China’s drones – which are much further along technologically than Iran’s – have also gotten the attention of the U.S. government. In its 2014 report to Congress, the congressionally-mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, citing the Defense Science Board, stated: “China is one of the world’s leading unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) producers, with dozens of models currently in production. According to a 2012 report by the Defense Science Board: ‘[China’s] move into unmanned systems is alarming. The country has a great deal of technology, seemingly unlimited resources and clearly is leveraging all available information on Western unmanned systems development. China might easily match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.'”

China, along with Russia, was pushing hard for an end to the arms embargo on Iran as part of the nuclear deal.

The nuclear deal, aside from enabling Iran to become a nuclear state, will very likely provide Iran with the means to develop and obtain drones that can cause real problems for our troops and our allies. If we want to prevent that from happening, we’re going to need a lot less Iranian sanctions relief, and a lot more Black Darts.

About Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner is the Vice President for Government Relations at the Center for Security Policy, where he manages the Center's educational efforts and interactions with the federal government. His articles have appeared in The American Spectator, The Washington Times, Townhall, The Washington Examiner, and inFocus Quarterly. He holds a law degree from Georgetown University, and received his bachelor's degree in political science, with highest distinction, from the University of Michigan.