The Other Drone War: Iran and Its Proxies Utilizing UAVs
By 2010 Iran had produced its first native drone, the Karrar. The Iranians claimed the Karrar could fly 600 miles and drop around 500 pounds of bombs. On September 25, Iran revealed the domestically produced medium altitude Shahed-129 UAV. The aircraft appeared to share many outward characteristics with the U.S. Predator drone, but was most likely based on a captured Israeli design. The Iranians reported the Shahed-129 has the ability to fly for 24 hours straight and has a range of 1,250 miles -- potentially putting Israel in its range.
Since technologically advanced drones give Western powers a tactical and strategic intelligence advantage, the Iranians have also started their own counter-drone campaign. In 2009, Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), the Iraqi version of Lebanese Hezbollah and an Iranian proxy, hacked into U.S. drones and watched the UAV’s video feeds. Earlier in 2008, the group organized a plan to assassinate President Obama when he toured Baghdad. The footage KH took of Obama’s convoy appeared to look down from the air, possibly indicating the group had hacked into a U.S. drone.
Lebanese Hezbollah claims they have the ability to tap into Israeli UAV feeds going back to the late 1990s. According to the Hezbollah leaders, their best success in hacking an Israeli UAV came in 1997 during an ambush which became known as the “Shayetet catastrophe.” During the fighting, 11 Israeli naval commandos were killed by Hezbollah. Later in 2010, the IDF confirmed Lebanese Hezbollah had hacked into their drones during the ambush. This subsequently led the IDF to encrypt their UAVs.
Nevertheless, by the fall of 2011 there were still reports that Hezbollah could electronically counter Israeli drones. In one case, UNIFIL had charted an Israeli drone flying near the Hezbollah-controlled southern-Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, only to have the aircraft disappear from their radar. No wreckage was found and it was reported the Israeli UAV may have been carted away by Hezbollah personnel.
During another drone-related incident, a top-secret and stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel UAV was brought down over Iran. The Iranian government stated it had forced the American drone to the ground via hacking its GPS-based control systems. The U.S. military rejected Iran’s claims as “ridiculous,” stating the ground-based pilots simply lost control of the plane. According to The Daily Beast, it is possible Tehran could have used the captured drone to hack into other American UAV systems. The Sentinel is still in the hands of the Iranians.
It appears likely that Iranian forces and their allies will continue to use drones as examples of their own technological prowess vis a vis the West. Thus far, they have served Tehran’s propaganda purposes and act as cheap force multipliers to keep technologically advanced states on edge. Just as Lebanese Hezbollah utilized asymmetric tactics against the sophisticated IDF, a low-cost drone loaded with 30 kilograms of explosives acts in the same way. The reaction to a penetration by an Iranian drone also serves a strategic interest by forcing Tehran’s foes to spend more money on defenses.
Since unmanned aircraft serve as a mainstay for Western militaries, Iran’s efforts to counter the advanced Western UAV technology will also continue. Iran’s ability or alleged ability to hack into and to bring down American and Israeli UAVs also assists in their struggle to brand themselves as just as technologically proficient as any Western power.
It remains clear that Iran’s drone tactics will be a continuing presence in the Middle East and will continue to be a medium used to spark crises.