Examining Iranian Drone Strikes in Syria

by Galen Wright.

Iran’s Shahed-129 (S129). Click on the image for more photos.

Iran’s Shahed-129 (S129). Click on the image for more photos.

Over the past two decades the number of states operating drones has exploded from just a handful to more than a third of all countries worldwide. Now, the list of countries not just operating armed drones, but using them in wartime, looks poised to make a similar jump.

Recent footage from Syria confirms that Iran can be added to this list, joining the US, UK, Israel, Pakistan, Iraq, and Nigeria.[1] The footage shows Iran’s Shahed-129 (S129) providing precision-strike support within the past three months for the ongoing offensives by pro-government forces around Aleppo, Syria.

This confirmation underscores both the proliferation of surveillance/strike capabilities beyond the exclusive domain of the West, and the degree to which the Assad government’s continued survival has come to depend on foreign military support.

• • •

On February 4, Iran’s Broadcasting Corporation (IRIB) aired a short news segment about the Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) use of S129s to secure the country’s restive southeast border. However, in addition to footage of the drones operating out of Konarak airport near Pakistan, the program featured two short clips of the aircraft striking targets south of Aleppo.


The S129’s base in Konarak can be recognized by the runway configuration, and location of hardened shelters used by the Air Force’s alert fighters. (IRIB)

The S129 is a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV comparable to the ubiquitous MQ-1 Predator. It was designed in the late-2000s by the Shahed Aviation Industries Research Center, a company responsible for many of the Guards’ in-house designs.[2] It was officially introduced in September 2012, reportedly entering production a year later. It first appeared over Syria in April 2014.

According to official statements, the S129 has an endurance of 24 hours, an operational radius of 2000 km, and a ceiling of 25,000 feet (7,620 m). While these claims cannot be confirmed they are broadly consistent with other examples in the same class.

The S129 can be armed with up to eight glide bombs or missiles fitted on two hardpoints, although four appears to be the limit in practice. Both options are based on a common design, which — superficially at least — resembles Rafael’s Spike-ER.[3] Both are fitted with imaging infrared seekers and datalinks that provide video footage through the moment of impact. This feature is instrumental in assessing the two strikes documented thusfar in Syria.


S129 at Konarak pictured with two variants of the “Smart Bomb 324”, which are also believed to be in use over Syria. (IRIB)

• • •

The two clips from Syria are haphazardly arranged between footage from Konarak and earlier tests elsewhere in Iran, making it difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Nonetheless, the imprinted geographic coordinate systems confirm each strike’s position. Both strikes include footage from the seeker and the S129’s onboard sensor payload.

3_Aleppo Overview

The first strike (2:33-2:37) took place at 9:30 pm on an unknown date, near Aleppo’s border with Idlib province (the exact position cannot be located). The target was a small group of men (7-10) gathered on a rural road bounded by farmland on either side. The targets may be armed, but the video alone is inconclusive. After the munition’s impact the UAV circled the target, continuing observation for at least a minute.

4_First Strike

First Strike: Image 1 & 2 are from the seeker, image 3 is from the aircraft’s onboard payload. (IRIB)

The second strike (2:45-2:49) took place at 11:00 am, on the outskirts of Halasah village about 15 km southwest of Aleppo. The munition was fired at short range — just under a kilometer — against a small building, possibly occupied by fighters from the Free Syrian Army or Jabhat al-Nusra. The strike was likely carried out in support of fighters from Kataib Hezbollah or Harakat al-Nujaba.[4]

5_Second Strike

Second Strike: Image 1 & 2 are from the seeker, image 3 is from the aircraft’s onboard payload. (IRIB)

Additional DigitalGlobe imagery — not pictured in this report — shows the building undamaged as of November 22, which suggests the strike took place sometime afterward. This is consistent with reports from that period, which show the front line passing over the area in late-November and early-December.[5]

[1] Although Iran experimented with armed drones during their war with Iraq in the 1980s, the examples then were rudimentary and fall far short of today’s standards. They functioned as remote rocket artillery rather than the surveillance/precision-strike assemblies that characterize the modern phenomena.
[2] For example, the company is responsible for a handful of light attack and utility helicopters (eg Shahed 278 and 285) and UAVs (eg Shahed 121, 123, 125, 129, & 171) associated almost exclusively with the IRGC.
[3] When mockups of the missile were first displayed during the 2010 Kish International Airshow their markings stylistically resembled those used by Rafael suggesting that — whatever the Sadid’s origin — the similarity has not escaped the notice of the company’s technicians.
[4] This claim is based on maps by Twitter’s @petolucem that place these combatants in the area around the time the strike is believed to have taken place.
[5] ibid [4]

This entry was posted in Drones, English, Galen Wright, General Knowledge, International, Iran, Syria.

One Response to Examining Iranian Drone Strikes in Syria

  1. Foreign Policy featured the article above in Paul McLeary, “Iranian Drones Now Hitting Rebel Targets in Syria“, February 29, 2016.

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