U.S. officials believe that Iran is directing surveillance drone flights over Iraq as it steps up its security assistance to Nuri al-Maliki’s government, joining the American drones already flying sorties over the country.
Iran’s drone program hasn’t gotten as much attention in the U.S. as some of its other military initiatives, but the country is a bona fide drone power, with an extensive unmanned aerial vehicle program dating back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
The program has expanded dramatically in recent years with more than a dozen models including, the recently introduced Fotros, it’s largest drone yet with a range up 1,200 miles. Iran is one of just five countries with operationally deployed armed drones (The others are the United States, Britain, Israel, and China.)
Iranian drones have been spotted over the battlefields of Syria. Tehran is helping Venezuela build a drone program of its own. And Israel has on several occasions shot down Iranian-made drones operated by Hezbollah.
The Iranian craft may not be quite as advanced as their U.S. counterparts. According to a RAND report issued earlier this year, Iran is still “unable to develop UAVs that can cruise high enough to avoid terrain yet low enough to avoid radar, especially against enemies on high alert, such as Israel or U.S. bases in the Middle East.” But the program may also have gotten a boost after a U.S. surveillance drone that crashed in the country in 2011 was reverse engineered.
Accordin to the GAO, the number of countries with drone programs doubled from 40 to 75 between 2005 and 2011 and we may be fast approaching a world where nearly every military possesses armed drones. With an eye on Iran, Saudi Arabia recently announced plans to acquire armed drones from China.
The normalization of military drones has been coming for a while, but all the same, a situation in which U.S. and Iranian drones are operating in the same theater – not to mention keeping any eye on the same target – feels like something of a milestone.