Iran unveils kamikaze drones


An undated picture received on December 8, 2011 shows a member of Iran's revolutionary guard (R) pointing at the U.S. RQ-170 unmanned spy plane as he speaks with Amirali Hajizadeh, a revolutionary guard commander, at an unknown location in Iran.

Article Highlights

  • If Iranians adopt suicide drones, they could open a new chapter in their asymmetric military strategy.

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  • The Iranian government has made no secret of its desire to develop a greater drone capability.

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  • Packed with explosives, Iranian suicide drones could wreak havoc with naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

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With a population nearing 75 million, Iran is one of the most populous countries in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic has long sought to leverage its comparatively large population in the regime’s defense. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), for example, Iranian authorities would send unarmed and barefoot 14- and 15-year-old members of the paramilitary Basij across minefields to clear them, with only the promise of paradise to motivate them.

As the 1988 Operation Praying Mantis demonstrated, the Iranian military has difficulty confronting U.S. forces head on and its navy has since developed swarming techniques. This is meant to exploit American vulnerabilities and cause enough casualties to force American officials to shy away from a prolonged fight. This includes suicide attacks. The problem with suicide attacks, of course, is finding enough cadres willing to commit suicide. Not only does age tempers revolutionary ideology but demography also affects the availability of volunteers. Because the birthrate in Iran is only half of what it was during the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranian government recognizes that it cannot assume an endless supply of young men willing to take their own lives in pursuit of religious or revolutionary ideals.

It is against this backdrop that the excerpted news account should interest Western security officials. The Iranian government has made no secret of its desire to develop a greater drone capability. While Iranian claims to have reverse-engineered a captured American drone appear exaggerated, there is little doubt that the Iranian military has developed drones and put them into operation. The Islamic Republic already uses drones for surveillance, and has previously claimed to have armed them with small missiles. Suicide drones, however, do not require the same technical expertise as the well-armed predators that Iran has previously claimed to have developed. Packed with explosives, Iranian suicide drones could wreak havoc with naval vessels and international shipping in the Persian Gulf. Iranian attempts to make good on threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, for example, might involve kamikaze drones rather than mines. Even absent explosives, an Iranian willingness to collide drones with helicopters and jetfighters could hamper routine naval and army aviation along the borders of Iran. If the Iranian embrace of suicide drones is serious and if the Iranians master the technology, Iranian strategists might have just opened a new chapter in their asymmetric military strategy.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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