May 17, 2014
Iran’s Drone War in Syria
Iran’s drone program dates back to the early 1980s, and it first tried to weaponize the birds some 30 years ago, long before American Predators and Reapers first soared aloft.
The Middle East was the first great proving ground for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as they’re called. During the 1980s, Israel flew drones over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to spot Syrian artillery and anti-aircraft positions, allowing the Israeli Air Force to knock out the Syrian air defenses with minimal risks to its pilots. At about the same time, Iran began using drones to spy on Iraqi positions in its war against Saddam Hussein. It was during that bitter conflict that Iranian engineers crudely mounted Soviet rocket-propelled grenades on their drones and fired them at Iraqi troops.
Over the last decade, even as American drones grew fearsome and infamous, killing alleged terrorists and many civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the Iranians began expanding their own program dramatically.
In addition to the steady influx of Iranian military drones, civilian drones also have appeared on the Syrian battlefield. In November 2013 rebels released images of a DJI Phantom they claim to have brought down in the besieged city of Homs. These tiny quad-copters are available in hobby shops in the United States and are often seen filming sporting events or music videos when mounted with GoPro cameras.
The rebels claim the quad-copter was being used by government forces to spy on their positions. But given the fact that the Phantom was found intact and is far less capable than the military technology in the Syrian arsenal, it is possible that it was a rebel drone all along. Indeed it would make sense for rebels to invest in these miniature UAVs because a Phantom with a GoPro attached costs much less than the street value of an AK-47 assault rifle.
The first evidence of Iranian drones in Syria appeared in early 2012, when opposition activists released video showing a Pahpad AB-3. The drones became known locally by the Arabic slang term wizwazi, and their presence was usually a good indicator of imminent shelling or airstrikes. There have since been numerous sightings of various models -- in December 2013, the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra shot down a small Yasir drone and displayed the wreckage on social media.
The Yasir drones are particularly interesting because Iran claims to have developed them by reverse engineering American technology captured in 2012. In this case, Iran says they developed their own model based on captured American ScanEagle mini UAVs, a claim Washington will not confirm, but which was widely reported in the media.
Over the last decade, even as American drones grew fearsome and infamous, the Iranians began expanding their own program dramatically.
The Yasir shoot-down provided solid evidence of advanced Iranian weaponry in Syria, as does recent footage of an Iranian Shahed-129 over Damascus. Iran has armed drones in its own arsenal, but so far only unarmed drones have appeared in Syria and their main purpose appears to be reconnaissance.
Iran now claims that it studied the American model to help create its first super-drone, the Fotros, and it seems quite eager for people to believe the new model is partially based on technology from the captured RQ-170. According to the Iranian ministry of defense, the new weapon is capable of delivering a 500-pound payload, can stay aloft for over 24 hours, and has a range of 2,000 miles.
Regardless of its true capacity and origin, the name “Fotros” appears to be a metaphor for the process of reverse engineering an American drone. In Shia mythology, Fotros was an angel who disobeyed God and was banished to Earth. After praying for forgiveness, Fotros was redeemed by the Imam Ali who gave him back his wings. On Sunday, Iranian state media reported that the Fotros would be flying soon. If so, it may only be a matter of time before we see those fallen angels in the skies over Syria.