A downed Israeli drone could advance Iran’s own drone program

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard claims this is the Israeli drone they shot down Sunday.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard claims this is the Israeli drone they shot down Sunday.
Image: AP Photo/Sepahnews
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Iran may have just caught a big break.

State media reports out of Tehran on Sunday said that the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard had shot down an Israeli drone near the Natanz uranium enrichment site, home to Iran’s nuclear program. The downed aircraft was reportedly a stealth long-range surveillance drone designed to avoid radar detection.

The Iranian defense minister, brigadier general Hossein Dehghan, was quoted in the official Islamic Republic News Agency saying that shooting down the Israeli drone at Natanz, where an estimated 16,000 centrifuges are located, was proof that the country would offer a “crushing response” to any aggression. The Israeli military, following usual protocol, did not comment on the reports.

Any Iranian access to the heavily encrypted technology inside the vehicle would likely cause great concern in Tel Aviv, where worries about Iranian-engineered drones sent by Hezbollah and, possibly in the future, Hamas have heightened in the last couple of years. If Iran can access the unmanned aerial vehicle’s sensors, which are highly sophisticated and crucial for determining mission accuracy, it’s possible that they will be able to re-engineer a model of their own with long-range capabilities that could conduct missions over Israel.

In recent years, Iran has reported that it shot down other foreign drones over its airspace, including an American-made RQ-170 Sentinel unarmed surveillance drone in 2011. At the time, the US denied the reports, but it later said that a CIA drone had not been shot down but crashed due to “technical malfunction” over Iranian airspace. In an official ceremony in May, Iran displayed a copy of the aircraft, manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

In a press conference today, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, commander of the country’s volunteer Basij forces, said that the Iranian armed forces have additionally seized a “large number” of foreign spy drones in recent years but would not specify where they had come from, according to local reports.

Drones have become an especially important component of Tehran’s military arsenal in recent years. Last November, Iran unveiled its first predator drone, the Shahed 129, which was largely based on an Israeli Elbit Hermes 450 model. The drone shot down yesterday is believed to have also been an Hermes.

David Cenciotti, the founder of the blog The Aviationist, tells Quartz that Iran has been quite adept at implementing the technologies captured from these downed drones into manufacturing their own UAVs. The country, he says, now has a small but fairly robust domestic drone program.

“With access to foreign technology restricted by a long-lasting embargo, Iran has developed several domestic drones,” said Cenciotti. “Some of them are similar to the Israeli model Hermes 450 model. Others are based on US models captured after they were shot down or crash landed during spy missions over Iranian airspace.”

Iran’s domestic drone industry, Cenciotti explains, now exports to its allies. Iranian-made UAVs have been spotted in Syria, Venezuela and in the Gaza Strip, where they have been operated by Hamas.