Russia has depleted most of its precision-guided weapons, including many drones to support long-range artillery strikes. Six months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Russia counted on Iran for additional munitions, US officials notes.
President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, shared with reporters Monday a brief insight on the intelligence they have gathered regarding the Kremlin leader’s recent visit to Iran, revealing that Russia has sought “hundreds of armed and unarmed surveillance drones from Iran.”
While neither country has confirmed it, Sullivan said Iran is preparing to supply Russia with around 300 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, including training Russian troops on how to use them.
“Russia deepening an alliance with Iran to kill Ukrainians is something that the whole world should look at and see as a profound threat,” Sullivan said.
But according to Sullivan, the Russian delegation visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice in the last five weeks—on June 8 and July 5—to examine drones that can be armed. Based on the satellite imagery, the former has inspected Shahed-191 drones.
At a press conference Tuesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there is no indication yet on whether or not Iran has sent the alleged drones to Russia or when. In the same week, Moscow’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, denied they had any plans to purchase Iranian drones.
Russia’s depleting supply of UAV drones
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently flew to Iran, marking his first trip outside his homeland since the Ukraine invasion in February, to meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to discuss the arms deal.
Ground to air defense of Armed Forces of Ukraine. Anti-aircraft missile destroy another Russian ORLAN-10 drone.pic.twitter.com/qVUXv3qtA5
— Altavista 🇪🇺🇺🇦 (@na_intel) July 21, 2022
The number of Russian drones—primarily the Orlan-10, a small fixed-wing aircraft, and small, commercially available quadcopters—has significantly diminished throughout the invasion.
Although Russian drones have influenced Ukrainian troops’ tactics on the battlefield, the latter has managed to take down at least 50 surveillance drones of the aggressor—thanks to the additional cutting-edge munition supplies from the West and Russia’s friendly fire and weapon jamming problems.
#Ukraine: A Russian "jamming" Orlan-10 UAV was shot down by a Ukrainian soldier by small arms fire.
This drone is a part of a Russian RB-341V Leer-3 electronic warfare system and used to locate GSM signals, then interfere them or act as a mobile base station. pic.twitter.com/e5YRjsCj5Y
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) July 15, 2022
The US-supplied arsenals have empowered Ukrainian troops, with the first batch of weapons such as track-mounted multiple-rocket launchers, to destroy over two Russian ammunition depots, air defenses, and command posts during the five-month campaign.
Thus, the Kremlin is strengthening its ties with Iran to gain access to the latter’s high-end drone technology and counter the advanced arms of the West.
According to Samuel Bendett, a specialist on Russian drones and other weapons at CNA, “Russia is turning to an ally that has flown drones in complex environments in large numbers,” adding that “while the Russians still have drones, they don’t have all the types they need.”
Iran has previously provided drone technology to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen, attacking Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They also supported Shiite militias in Iraq with weapons, which they used to attack Iraqi and American troops.
During his meeting with Putin, Iran’s Supreme Leader emphasized the importance of long-term cooperation between Iran and Russia, adding that the two countries must remain vigilant against “Western deception.”
The Kremlin leader’s visit, which comes just days after Biden’s visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia, sends a clear message to the West about Russia’s plans to strengthen strategic ties with Iran, China, and India in the face of Western sanctions, Reuters reported.
Significance of drones in modern warfare
Reconnaissance drones have increasingly become significant in modern warfare, not to mention insurgencies and counter-terrorism operations.
However, Russia’s defense industry has struggled to build capable UAVs in large quantities, analysts claim. And since its invasion began, the Russians have relied heavily on drones for attacking Ukrainian troops and transmitting coordinates back to Russia’s long-range weapons, such as howitzers and mortars.
Ukraine had its drone fleet even before Russia’s invasion. Moreover, it has received additional military equipment from the US and other NATO countries to counterstrike the aggressor’s heavy-duty tanks and armored personnel carriers.
While it’s unclear what type of drones Russia is looking for, US officials speculated that they might be after the so-called suicide drones with which Iran launched several attacks on American troops based in Iraq and Syria last year. Accordingly, US military leaders believed that the drones in the captured satellite imagery and the ones used in Iraq were the same.
Aside from drones, Russia seems interested in acquiring Iran’s increasingly sophisticated arsenal of long-range missiles, which the latter also used to assault US bases in Iraq two years ago.
There may be limits on how much military aid Iran will provide to Russia. Because of sanctions against Russia, it is cut off from access to the US Dollar or Euro, which means Iran will have to accept payment in Rubles which is only taken in Russia for goods and services. While the Ruble crashed pretty hard in the initial wave of sanctions, Moscow stabilized it by manipulating the market for rubles and manufacturing demand that would not otherwise exist. As a result, Iran could end up holding a lot of devalued Rubles that it can’t do anything with later on and will probably want to limit its exposure.
The ties between the two countries raise concern for the West that the United States will watch with caution.