Iran last week carried out extensive drone warfare exercises, with several hundred unmanned aircraft flying reconnaissance missions against fixed and moving targets over land and sea, and simulated attacks with machine guns, bombs and guided missiles as well as kamikaze strikes. One of the first for Iran was the launch of a air-to-air missile by a drone. That doesn’t mean Iran is going to launch a mass of Top Gun aerial combat drones at US forces anytime soon, but it hints at an important new capability.
Obviously, such a report from Iranian official media must be taken with a few grains of salt, as overestimating their military capability is pretty much a requirement to stay in business. But even if they are not objective, these reports can provide useful information.
The launch drone was a Karrar, an Iranian clone of the Beechcraft Streaker MQM-107, long used as an aerial target by the United States. Large numbers were exported to Iran during the Shah’s rule in the 1970s, and the Iranians reverse engineered, with some modifications, to create the Karrar in 2010. The jet-powered Karrar has a speed of over 500 mph, and has been modified from the target role to be a bomber, carrying a pair of 250-pound anti-ship missiles, a GPS-guided 500-pound bomb, or a small cruise missile.
In the new exercises, the Karrar was equipped with a single Azarakhsh (“Thunderbolt”) missile, another system that owes a debt to an American original: the missile appears identical to some versions of the veteran. Sidewinder US AIM-9, also exported to Iran at the time. Unveiled in 2018, the Azarakhsh appears to have the same weight and dimensions as the Sidewinder. This was originally described as an anti-tank missile, but could clearly be easily modified for its previous role.
In recent exercises, several truck-mounted launchers have fired a wave of Karrars. The drones take off with the assistance of a rocket and land with a parachute. Little is known about their sensors, but the latest version is said to have cameras and infrared sensors.
So why put up an old-fashioned rc plane, basically a flying target with a bomb hanging underneath, with an air-to-air missile? There are a few tactical apps that make sense.
The Karrar is sometimes described as an interceptor and can be used like a suicide bomber to ram incoming planes. Mounting a surface-to-air missile would give it two shots rather than one, and also allow it to be used multiple times rather than just once. This could be a useful capability against simple, non-dodging targets such as cruise missiles. The launch speed could put interceptors in the air faster than manned planes. The exact success of the Karrar / Azarakhsh in this role is questionable, but their presence could make matters more complicated for any proposed attack.
Another possible target would be enemy drones, as pilots lack “situational awareness” – without a cockpit from which to see, they can often be approached and shot down without seeing their attacker. This would give Iran a long-term and relatively deniable way to tackle reapers like the one who killed Qassem Soleimani.
The missiles could also give a defensive capacity. This is similar to what the US Air Force did in the early 2000s, installing Stinger air-to-air missiles on its MQ-1 Predator drones so that they were not easy prey for Iraqi jets during reconnaissance missions. The idea was that they could at least scare the Iraqis if not shoot them down. The only time that missiles were traded with a 2002 MiG-25, the Predator was blown from the sky. The idea has since been revived, and an MQ-9 Reaper has been successful took a target with an air-to-air missile (assumed to be a Sidewinder) in a 2018 test.
Waves of Karrars can attack targets like air bases or aircraft carriers. Most are capable of carrying bombs or surface-to-air missiles, and will be intercepted by combatants long before they reach their objective and unilateral combat will ensue. Equipping certain drones with air-to-air missiles changes the encounter from a turkey fire to something like Russian roulette for fighters, with the risk that getting too close could mean getting shot down. Again, this changes the calculation of the action. A dozen drones for an F-18 Hornet, for example, would be an excellent exchange rate for the Iranians.
Iran’s announcement isn’t technically impressive, but shows a creative approach to assembling well-established technologies. Remote-controlled aerial combat drones derived from ancient aerial targets are a distinct possibility – US Navy developed them 50 years ago, but the idea was perhaps a little too frightening for proponents of manned planes. And although true The “Loyal Wingman” combat robots perhaps in a few years the Iranian exercise shows that we must prepare now for the drones which strike back.