Intelligence from a downed U.S. drone could have helped Iranian engineers produce a newly unveiled unmanned aircraft reportedly capable of shooting targets from 31 miles away and reaching an altitude of 15,000 feet, according to a U.S. Army analysis.
The increased weaponization of remote controlled Iranian planes could imperil U.S. warships, fighter jets, and even domestic airliners in the region, experts warn.
"A growing [unmanned] fleet might embolden the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] to test the defense of American naval vessels and the [fleet’s] armament might also require U.S. or other international forces to fire sooner upon intruders," Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq, observed in a recent analysis published by the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO).
The Iranian press in recent months has carried a slate of stories detailing the military’s increased manufacture of unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as UAVs or drones.
It is suspected that Iran has capitalized on technology gleaned from the downing of a U.S.-made stealth drone last year.
Military officials revealed in July that they had decoded and extracted information from the CIA-owned drone, an RQ-170 Sentinel produced by Lockheed Martin, according to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA).
"You have to think there’s a certain amount of technology that was compromised," retired Admiral James Lyons Jr. told the Free Beacon.
"They couldn’t have given the Iranian engineers a better Christmas present," Rubin said in an interview.
Less than two months after Iran claimed to have decoded the captured American drone, a slate of reports emerged indicating that Iran had armed its newest drones with missiles capable of carrying a 17-pound payload.
Senior Iranian military officials claim the country is close to designating these drones as fully operational, according to Iran’s official Fars News Agency.
"We observed the operation of Iran's combat Unmanned Arial Vehicles in the recent war-games conducted by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and we plan to mount missile systems onto these drones," Mohammad Eslami, Iran’s Deputy Defense Minister for Industrial and Research, told Fars earlier this month.
While Iran is known for its military bluster—even doctoring photos to alter the appearance and capabilities of its attack equipment—experts such as Rubin believe the regime has invested great resources in its UAV program.
"Iranian UAV development appears to be real," Rubin wrote in his analysis, which was published this month in the FMSO’s Operational Environment Watch publication.
"If unarmed Iranian UAVs already posed a growing threat to aircraft and helicopters operating in international airspace over the Persian Gulf, then armed UAVs can throw gasoline onto an already combustible situation," Rubin wrote.
Iran’s interest in UAV technology is a sign that the regime wants to ratchet up tension with the West, according to Admiral Lyons.
"It’s not going to be helpful at all," said Lyons, CEO of the consulting firm Lion Associates. "It will not help in any way to stabilize, but will be a further factor ratcheting up the problem with face in the Middle East."
Armed UAVs could prompt an unnecessary conflict, Rubin noted.
"It really changes the way we do business in the Persian Gulf," he said. "We may not have had relations for more than three decades [with Iran], but our ships and air traffic controllers talk to the Iranians each and every day. But you can’t talk to a drone.
Even civilian airliners could be targeted, Rubin warned.
"We have to worry about them sending drones into the path of civilian airliners, let alone our own fighter jets," Rubin explained. "The drone can go from on guard to combat mode in a matter of a second."
U.S. military helicopters also could find themselves in the line of fire, Rubin said.
"Most people forget, whenever our aircraft carriers are operating, the issue isn’t just the fighters and ships, but we have helicopters" containing rescue divers hovering above, he said. "Basically, the drones make our helicopters sitting ducks. They’re actually the most vulnerable."
U.S. forces will not tolerate Iranian aggression, Lyons said.
"We’re certainly not going to present ourselves as targets and I think Iran needs to understand an attack on an American ship is an attack on our homeland, and they’d get a response they don’t like."
Iran’s military has announced the completion of several new drones in recent months. They are reportedly capable of performing various military operations, as well as hauling cargo, according to various reports in the Iranian media. Iranian officials have stressed the military's ability to dispatch its drones to all parts of the country at any time, according to Fars.
One domestically produced drone, dubbed Liko, is said to be capable of hauling 220 pounds of material 62 miles, Iran’s PressTV reported over the weekend.
The Liko drone can fly uninterrupted for three hours and reach heights of 16,000 feet, according to PressTV.
Two other drones are reportedly capable of conducting "rescue operations" and territorial patrols, as well as towing "light cargo," according to Fars.
Another domestically made UAV, the Shahed 129, can "carry out combat and reconnaissance missions with its 24-hour nonstop flight capability," Iranian Chief Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari was quoted as saying earlier this month.
The Shahed 129 also can carry "long range" missiles, according to Press TV.
However, some experts doubt that the Shahed is authentic.
"I'm skeptical about the Iranian claim to have a new operational combat UAV called the Shahed 129," Michael Eisenstadt, a retired Army reservist who formerly served in the Pentagon and at U.S. Central Command in Afghanistan, told the Free Beacon. "The Islamic Republic frequently exaggerates the achievements of its defense industries, and I suspect they are doing the same in this case."
Just as Iran has lied about its past military accomplishments, it is deceiving the West about its latest array of drones, Eisenstadt said.
"Iranians have released at least two still photos of what they claim is the Shahed 129 that show two very different UAVs," he explained. "One of the photos shows what looks like a static mock-up of a UAV carrying mock-ups of two missiles. The other shows a very different UAV in flight, but without any ordnance."
Eistenstadt said that until he sees video showing the Shahed 129 in flight, "I will consider this an unverified claim."
Still, "Iran has money and we have unhelpful countries such as China, North Korea and Russia willing to provide the materials" necessary to produce next generation weapons, Lyons said.
Iran has also provided its UAV technology to other rogue regimes and terror organizations, according to the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat Online, a Saudi news outlet.
In addition to providing drone technology the regime of Syrian President Bashal al-Assad, who has spied on and slaughtered scores of his own citizens, Iran has helped the terror group Hezbollah.
"Hezbollah has also relied on drones, while Iran helps Venezuela develop its own unmanned spy planes," Al-Sharq reported.
Iran also has unveiled new missile defense capabilities and cruise missiles in recent weeks.
The defense system, which Iran claims to have successfully tested over the weekend, is reportedly capable of reaching targets up to 75,000 feet in the air.
A recently developed Iranian cruise missile is said to be capable of reaching any Israeli city.
As Iran gets closer to enriching enough uranium to producing a nuclear weapon, it will rely more on its air defenses to deter a possible Israeli or American attack, experts said.