November 2, 2023No Comments

Airborne Insurgents: the Pluralization of Airpower Through Drones

Author: Michele Puggia - Military Strategy and Intelligence Team


The images of the massacre at the Supernova music festival near the Re'im kibbutz at the hands of Hamas are those that, in the public eye, marked the start of the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Gaza. These images are well-known as they are tragic. Even so, some of them, depicting the peculiarity of the attack, might raise some interesting questions concerning the capabilities of violent non-state actors (VNSA). Some of the pictures, along with Hamas's propaganda videos, have, in fact, shown the militants using motorised paragliders to swoop on the festival. While by no means sophisticated in terms of technology, these creative tactics, capitalising on the (limited) use of airspace, might be cause for concern.

Naturally, paragliders are just one small piece of the puzzle. VNSAs have been using air assets for quite some time now. The Tamil Air Tigers, for example, in 2007 used small commercial fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to conduct successful night raids on Sri Lankan military objectives. But the most relevant "new" tool in air warfare, is undoubtedly the drone. 

In another ITSS article by Danilo dalle Fave, the strategic utility of the use of drones by a nation such as Iran was underlined. In this article, the aim will be that of diving into the potential risks that these devices pose when in the hands of insurgents, and violent extremists.

Emerging Threat Scenarios

Commercial drones are cheap and replaceable, they don't require particular training, and radars have a hard time picking them out because of their small size, slow speed, and low flight path. And even when they are identified by an air-defence system, in many cases their destruction requires the use of expensive missiles, that are each worth many times more than a single drone; it then becomes clear how easy it could be to swarm and overload such systems.

Military-grade drones clearly represent a bigger threat in terms of destructive potential, but due to their cost and complexity, they are limited to those VNSAs with a sponsor state; relevant examples of these are Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthi rebels, all of which seem to have received drones from Iran or were aided in their development. Also, procurement of these drones, which are subject to regulations and restrictions, by VNSAs might still prove complex, which limits the main strength of drones such as the Shahed-136, which relies on its high numbers to overwhelm enemy defences.

Broadly speaking, the use of drones by VNSAs has provided these groups with cheap access to intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR), and also to ordnance delivery. ISIL has been particularly prolific in this endeavour.  Without sponsor-states providing them with higher-end capabilities, they have been using commercial drones to gather intelligence and create propaganda material since their inception. During the battle of Mosul, for example, they used drones to boost their C2 capabilities by spotting enemy roadblocks and re-directing vehicle-borne suicide bombers to their targets. They had been so effective that US Special Operations Commander General Raymond Thomas admitted that, for a time, ISIL enjoyed tactical superiority in the city's airspace. It seems fair to point out that this, albeit being a successful tactic, didn't prevent ISIL from losing Mosul.

In October 2016, ISIL also managed to kill 2 peshmerga fighters thanks to a booby-trapped drone that had been shot down. Drones have been since also adapted to carry and deliver small bombs, so as not to require the destruction of the drone itself.

These kinds of threats might seriously affect future battlefields. Force protection in insurgencies could become increasingly more complex, limiting troops' mobility and increasing the costs of operations. The impact of unpredictable drone attacks from above on morale would also be considerable. 

Nonetheless, these new threats are unfortunately not exclusive to battlefields. Aside from also being able to threaten rear bases and supply lines, drones bring new challenges also to states not at war. Transnational terrorist groups might in fact easily use commercial drones to scale up the number of victims of their attacks against the civilian population. It is not hard to imagine how much more devastating a coordinated attack, such as that of the Bataclan, would be if carried out with a number of explosive drones engaging intervening law enforcement officers. Amateur videos on the internet additionally show the possibility of fitting guns directly on drones. This would further increase the operational spectrum of terrorist and insurgent cells at home and abroad.


Defensive Prospects

One element is important to consider though. Until today, no drone attack, be it terrorist or against military forces, has led to the potentially catastrophic consequences envisioned by many experts. As a matter of fact, a report of the ICCThas found that among all VNSAs in the Middle East that use drones, none have, for example, mounted guns on their drones. "Suicide" and "bomber" drones have managed to achieve always limited results. Hamas has also failed to use its drones effectively against Israel, even when benefitting from Iran's expertise.

This might show that operating even simple commercial drones and rigging them for offensive purposes is more complex than it may seem. Besides, it is important to remember that the resources of these actors are not limitless, and while drones may be cheap, their use, maintenance, and weaponisation would require resources that won't be spent elsewhere, boby-trapping homes, producing roadside IEDs, buying weapons and so on.

Furthermore, millions are being spent on research for anti-drone technology. From directed energy weapons, to jamming guns and electronic warfare systems. And other, already-existing systems have proven to be moderately effective at countering drones without bringing a nation to bankruptcy; Ukrainian flak-guns and American CRAMs are two such examples.

Not all of these tools will fit all contexts, after all, it would be quite picturesque to imagine European landmarks such as Alexanderplatz or the Champs-Elysées protected by patriot or laser batteries. Law enforcement will need different tactics and tools than those needed by deployed military personnel.

The accessibility and unpredictability of drone use by malicious actors remain a relevant threat. As Chavez notes then, it might become more effective to focus counter-drone efforts on intelligence, and supply chain disruption that represent (even if in different forms) tools and pathways available to both the military and the civilian world.

July 10, 2023No Comments

Iranian Drone Warfare: theory and praxis

Author: Danilo dalle Fave - Article Intelligence and Military Strategy Team

The Iranian strategic doctrine and the role of drone warfare

Iranian strategic doctrine has been influenced by the peculiar nature of its political regime and its history. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 infused in the Iranian strategic doctrine of Shah’s era, inspired by the contemporary Western military doctrines, some elements that influence the current role of drones in Iranian warfare: “holy defence”, export of the revolution, and especially the concept of self-reliance are the ideological foundation of the current Iranian strategic doctrine.

The Iraq-Iran war of the ‘80s has defined the current duality of Iranian armed forces: due to the distrust toward the Iranian army (Artesh), seen as an instrument of Shah’s supporters, the khomeinists developed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a parallel army and the main instrument of their foreign policy. The purges against the high command of Artesh and the lack of strategic doctrines among the pasdarans compelled them to create an ad hoc military doctrine, deeply influenced by their origin as an ideological militia with a revolutionary structure.

The result is a strategic doctrine centred around three pillars: proxy warfare, which means the use of guerrilla groups of Shia communities around the Islamic world used as an instrument for the projection of Iranian influence abroad; asymmetric warfare, a direct consequence of the military and technological superiority of their enemies; the focus on Ballistic missiles, which is caused by the weak Iranian air forces and the foreign dependency for aeronautical components and have compelled to focus on specific arms systems that can provide deterrence and be produced domestically.

Despite being formally a defensive strategic doctrine, the current supreme leader Ali Khamenei has provided also the official state doctrine for external interventions in 2010, the so-called two-wing doctrine: the Foreign Ministry and the Quds Force, the overseas operations arms of the IRGC, have the task to protect Iran and enhance Iranian role in the region. This means that the military instrument is embedded in Iranian foreign policy.

IRGC interventions of the last ten years have shown how foreign operations are usually conducted when certain conditions are met: the presence of a Shia community that can provide the proxy actor (e.g. in Lebanon Hezbollah or the Houtis in Yemen), the weakness of the state actors, like in Iraq or Lebanon, that can allow the strengthening of pro-Iranian forces and provide a logistics pipeline, capable of transfer personnel, weapons and allowing training by IRGC forces.

In this framework, drone warfare is exclusively conducted by the IRGC aerospace force, which also controls Iran’s strategic-missile force. Drones are used to compensate for the weakness of Iranian air forces in the reconnaissance and surveillance domain and the industrial constraints to the mass production of warplanes.

IRGC drones are perfectly suited to match the IRGC view of warfare: in the air domain, drones can be used along with ballistic and cruise missiles to attack enemy positions to strike and rapidly retreat, for reconnaissance and to overwhelm enemy positions. Swarms of loitering munitions can overburden enemy air defence allowing missiles to strike their objectives. The recent use in the Ukraine of Iranian-made drones by Russia is a clear example of how these kinds of saturation tactics can be very effective.
In the sea, the traditional naval swarming tactics, developed during the Iran-Iraq war, can be augmented with unmanned vehicles and balance the military superiority of the US and their allies.


Iranian Unmanned Aerial vehicles and industry

The first family of Iranian drones are the Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) Ababil: originally developed by the IRGC-owned Qods Aviation Industries, the Ababil-1 was a suicide drone used during the Iran-Iraq war usually launched by pneumatic truck launchers. Now they developed a specific Unmanned loitering munition drone, the DIO Arash.

This experience allowed the production in the 90s of the Ababil-2 and its different variants: the Ababil-B, a target drone for air-defence exercises, the Ababil-S, the first Iranian surveillance drone, the Ababil-T, a twin-tail variant that can be used for surveillance and as strike munition payloads and has been adopted by Hezbollah and the Houtis. The latter has deployed the Qasef-1 and Qasef-2K, Abadil-2 variants with 30 kg warheads, used as loitering munition against the Saudi-led coalition forces since 2016.

The Ababil-3, suspected to be a copy of the South African Denel Dynamics Seeker, is an Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance (ISR) drone and has been used extensively by Iranian forces during the Syrian civil war. The last member of this family, the Ababil-5, debuted in April 2022 and appears to be a Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle, similar to the American Predator.

The other family of Iranian drones is represented by the Mohajer, the first ISR drone produced in the 80s and widely exported to Iranian proxies. Many Iranian drones are the result of a reverse-engineered version of Western drones, like the IAIO Fotros, IAIO Yasir, HESA Hamaseh, and IRIAF Kaman-22: the most important of them are the Saegheh, an entire family of drones that are the result of the acquisition of US Lockheed RQ-170 Sentinel, downed in 2011, which shows how Iranian industries are capable to copy stealth drones and in general to adapt western technology for internal purposes.

The most important drone family is the Shahed: the HESA Shahed-129, a dual-role drone is deployed for patrols and direct attacks for the Iranian Army and Navy, while the HESA Shahed-136 is a loitering munition designed for swarm attacks against ground targets. The last addition is the HESA Shahed-149, a reusable attack drone capable of launching missiles and bombs and being equipped for electronic warfare.

As previously said, Iran relies on drones in order to overcome the lack of a proper aerospace industry: the cost-effectiveness of drones in production and maintenance avoids the costly traditional aircraft procurement. At the same time, it is also a matter of internal political dynamics. Drone producers are mostly linked with the IRGC which managed to concentrate power in recent years, especially with the current president Ebrahim Raisi. The main consequence of this, apart from a greater role of IRGC in Iranian politics, is the “capture” of funds by the IRGC, leaving the Iranian Air Forces with shrinking resources to develop their vehicles and devices.
That is why Iran relies, as during Shah’s era, on imports: the recent discussion for the procurement of the Russian Su-35, a 4th generation multi-role jet fighter, is a clear sign of the overreliance on imports for traditional aircraft.


Summing up, drone warfare is an important element of the Iranian way to wage war: it reflects Iranian leadership’s preference for asymmetric approaches and the adaptation to Western sanctions that prevented the development of traditional aerospace vehicles. Despite domestic strifes and tensions with the US, Iran can exploit its expertise in drones to obtain technology and know-how in the aerospace field that needs to scale up its military prowess: deeper cooperation with Russia, favoured by the isolation of both countries in the international arena, could augment Iranian aerospace forces, with consequences on the military balance in the Middle East.

April 18, 2023No Comments

By water or air: how drones are changing the face of drug trafficking

Author: Latin America Team - ITSS Verona

The ever-changing nature of the drug trafficking scene

The drug trafficking scene is ever-changing, with new actors emerging and a myriad of traffickers constantly adapting to the latest measures by law enforcement and exogenous circumstances. Amid the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, drug traffickers have adapted their modus operandi by increasing their use of the dark web and social media platforms to sell drugs, opting for contactless mail transactions and enabling payments through cryptocurrency. As a result, drug markets on the dark web are now worth $315 million annually. Still, many drugs –mainly manufactured in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia– enter Europe through sea or air cargo, with the illicit substances typically concealed in food, construction materials, and commodities. However, this is not to say that drugs are not trafficked in more sophisticated ways: both drones and narco-submarines have been captured by Spanish authorities in the last few years.

Indeed, record amounts of seized cocaine have been a pattern in Europe since 2017, as the region becomes a key trans-shipment point for drugs originating in Latin America destined for the Middle East and Asia. Europe, though, has not become the epicentre of cocaine just out of pure coincidence. With a saturated United States (US) drug market, the kilogram of cocaine is sold for $60,000 in Europe, twice as much as in the US. Moreover, Europe's appeal for drug traffickers is partly due to the lower risks of asset seizure. The large volume of cargo passing through major ports, like Antwerp and Rotterdam, allows traffickers to take advantage of the sheer quantity of shipments, minimizing the chances of being caught. Thus, while Colombian, Albanian, and Italian organized crime has historically dominated Europe's cocaine trafficking, new actors have sought to exploit these vulnerabilities to enter the European drug market. For instance, Mexican cartels, albeit starting with methamphetamines, have entered Europe's cocaine market, partnering with locals to facilitate production, trafficking, and distribution. Therefore, is not only local cocaine production increasing thanks to transatlantic partnerships between Latin American and European criminal groups, but also high levels of cocaine production in Latin America have entailed an increased drug flow entering the region.

In the face of increasing drug trafficking, the European Union (EU) and member states have taken steps to stifle/stop/impede the flow of drugs:

  • The drug monitoring centre: the European Union (EU) drug monitoring centre was granted an extended mandate.
  • The Dutch government vowed to invest €29 million to "make main Dutch ports as unattractive as possible for international drug trafficking."
  • A super-cartel was busted in November 2022.

Nevertheless, the stability of cocaine prices indicates that more is evading seizure and reaching the EU markets.

The ways drugs are trafficked are growing in their technical and organizational complexity. We do not know how long or often drones have been used to smuggle drugs. Their use, however, certainly reflects the adaptability and evolving nature of drug trafficking. Through air or sea, through submarines, cargo, or drones, drug traffickers are determined to keep their business alive and booming.

Smuggling by Air

Aerial drones are a tactical innovation by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to facilitate or assist in illicit trade. Denoting a learning competition, these technologies are used ostensibly to overcome and evade national and international law enforcement efforts. DTOs use these drones for various purposes, such as carrying small amounts of narcotics within and across international borders (i.e., air trafficking), conducting surveillance on law enforcement agencies, and guiding "narco-jets" full of cocaine into illegally established airstrips.

DTOs use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to smuggle drugs domestically and internationally. For instance, Mexican DTOs use multi-copters – small UAVs – to smuggle small amounts of drugs into the United States (US). For example, in 2017, a drone carrying approximately USD 46,000 of methamphetamine successfully crossed into San Diego County, where the package was to be delivered to a local contact. Similarly, DTOs operating in Morocco use various UAV types to successfully air traffic narcotics over the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and Portugal. In 2021, Spanish police intercepted a large fixed-wing UAV operated by a French DTO attempting to smuggle drugs from Morocco into Spain's Sun Coast in Andalusia. At €30,000 to €150,000 a piece, this Chinese drone had a wingspan of 4.5 meters, vertical take-off ability, carrying capacity of 150 kilograms, maximum speed of 170 km/h, and could fly for over seven hours.

Beyond these UAVs' operational anonymity and cost-effectiveness, DTOs are using ship-based launching mechanisms to increase their operational capacity. This extends their air trafficking range and, thus, the number of trafficking routes. These developments, therefore, illuminate how DTOs are constantly adapting and developing new methods to evade detection and circumvent law enforcement measures.

Furthermore, these UAVs might also improve existing illicit drug trafficking operations. For example, an international drug syndicate in Australia used aerial drones to conduct surveillance on law enforcement. They attempted to smuggle 26 boxes of cocaine (worth USD 30 million) from Panama on the Spirit of Shanghai to Melbourne. Cartels have also used UAVs to guide jets full of cocaine into illegally established airstrips during night operations near the Laguna Del Tigre National Park in Guatemala. These shipments feed the northbound demand for cocaine destined for the United States. However, the sound of these drones alerts authorities to the arrival of these so-called "narco jets."

Therefore, despite UAVs seemingly improving our quality of life, they have also helped DTOs perform various functions to evade law enforcement. In this sense, the remote nature of these devices permits DTOs to operate them from anywhere, reducing the overall criminal risk involved in drug trafficking.


Smuggling by Sea

In recent years, drug cartels' use of submarine drones has become a growing concern for law enforcement agencies. As border security primarily focuses on land and air trafficking and cargo shipments, this new method of drug smuggling represents another innovative way DTOs avoid detection.

Submarine drones can be broadly categorized as either remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) or uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs). ROVs are tethered vehicles piloted by crew members on a nearby vessel, whereas UUVs are untethered and designed for largely autonomous operation without a human operator. Narcos generally use the latter ones since they can be controlled remotely from anywhere in the world.

Since the use of underwater drones is one of the latest novelties in drug trafficking, it is not straightforward to outline the phenomenon. What is sure, however, is that it marks the beginning of a new era in global drug trafficking. For instance, in July 2022, for the first time, Spanish police seized three underwater drones that were specifically designed for smuggling drugs across the sea from Morocco. The unmanned submersibles were seemingly capable of carrying up to 200 kg of cargo each, as reported by BBC News. However, this is not the first time that Spanish authorities have discovered devices created for carrying illicit substances underwater. Before the advent of drones, "narco submarines" were used to smuggle drugs worldwide. Spanish law enforcement authorities seized the first "narco-sub" in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Galicia in November 2019. Still, these types of underwater devices are used today. Indeed they have not been completely replaced by submarine drones. As a point in case, on March 13, 2023, another "narco submarine" was located off the coast of Vilagarcia, in Galicia. It was about 20 meters long and could carry up to 5 tons of drugs. In this sense, the interception of this vessel marked the third episode related to drug submarines in Spain.

Nevertheless, catching these underwater devices is all but easy. According to the US federal agency "Drug Enforcement Administration" (DEA), only a quarter of the vessels are intercepted. Based on this evidence, the percentage of seized underwater drones is even lower.  

For the sake of comparison, a critical difference between the two underwater vehicles is that the manned ones are significantly larger than the drones. Hence, they can carry thousands of kilograms of drugs. For instance, the first "narco-sub" seized off the coast of Galicia in November 2019 was able to transport 3 tons of cocaine. According to Corriere della Sera, the amount seized was worth about a million dollars. On the other hand, as specified by H.I. Sutton, an analyst specializing in submarines, the drone submarines found last July in Spain were made of steel with electric propulsion and were small enough to fit within a transit van, making transportation easy. Moreover, as reported above, they could carry "only" 200 kg of cargo each. Finally, what the two devices have in common is that even if they are commonly referred to as "underwater devices", in reality, both are technically semi-submersibles.

Legal challenges and regulations shortcomings

The use of drones has been greatly criticized since their spike in recent years, mostly for violating physical and behavioral privacy. They have been at the centre of international relations because of the rise of their misuses. Due to the lack of general awareness and regulation found in international and regional laws, drones have been one of the latest tools in the hands of organized crime groups. Needless to say, this surely violates international law since their use by organized crime groups represents a significant challenge for authorities. Legal implications for drones are scarce and not strong enough to tackle this new phenomenon that can only grow from now on. But what are the regulations in place now?

As drones are small and difficult to detect, it is complicated to intercept them. Not only that, but organized crime groups are also using sophisticated technology to operate these drones, making it highly arduous to track them down. Moreover, authorities are further limited by the laws governing this domain, with guidelines generally issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) internationally and by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for the EU. Generally, legislation marks that drones need to be registered, their operators must be licensed, and their use must not endanger public safety. Furthermore, both agencies also divide drones into three categories based on the risk that they might pose. That is, the higher the risk, the more licenses and authorizations the operator needs to use them in the air and the water.

Recently the "U Space Regulation" adopted by the EASA in April 2021 seeks to harmonize the requirements for drone traffic in the air to mitigate air and ground risk and regulate all types of uncrewed aircraft operation. However, the guidelines issued by ICAO and EASA still do not provide any directive for law enforcement agencies to intercept illegal activities. As a result, law enforcement agencies have their hands tied: they cannot shoot down drones or interfere with their operation, even if they are being used for illegal activities.

In Latin America (LATAM), however, this regulation has yet to take place. That is, the region still needs to have a regional organization that can monitor drones and their activities. However, Brazil and Mexico are emerging as top countries in the usage of drones, with Israel being their main supplier. In this sense, in the region, most of the control remains in the hands of the military, with domestic and international law regulations being virtually non-existent. This scenario has, thus, created problems also for human rights advocates. Therefore, although considered a powerful intelligence and operations tool used by criminal groups, drones remain a highly ungoverned grey area domestically, regionally, and internationally.


Undoubtedly, cutting-edge technology - such as UAVs and UUVs - will play an essential role in the learning competition between drug trafficking organizations and law enforcement. Moreover, regarding the use of drones, the narcos currently have a significant advantage over agencies that combat this activity.

First, law enforcement agencies ability to counter drug trafficking drones is constrained by a series of laws and regulations. For obvious reasons, these same limitations do not apply to narcos. Then there is an economic factor, as criminal organizations, in some cases, have greater financial resources at their disposal than law enforcement agencies.

Indeed, drones are not capable of transporting large quantities of drugs, but their operational elusiveness and anonymity offer a seemingly unbridled challenge to law enforcement., an advantage that should not be underestimated since those who are arrested often start cooperating with law enforcers.

The use of drones certainly cannot replace traditional methods of drug trafficking. Still, it can play a fundamental role in capillary supply or improving tried-and-tested methods.

March 27, 2023No Comments

What is the future of Russo-Iranian military relations?

Authors: Margherita Ceserani, Will Kingston-Cox, Ilaria Lorusso, Shahin Modarres

Russia’s war in Ukraine has reached its 398th day and the pro-Russian mercenary Wagner Group is still engaging in the battlefield of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk province, after eight months of combat. They have been assaulting the city since August 2022 and, even though they succeeded on the East frontline, there is still room for a defeat by hands of the Ukrainian resistance backed by three Mi-8 helicopter gunships.

That the war was also being conducted from the air is not news as several sources confirmed the deployment of Iranian drones serving the Russian army, although information was repeatedly denied by Tehran. Moreover, Iran has just confirmed a deal through which it will be in receipt of three SU-35 fighter planes from Russia. This signals two trends: firstly, the Iranian intention to reconstitute its military arsenal and to strengthen its aircraft forces; ultimately, its willingness to develop a weapon market and become a relevant seller, given that the embargo on ballistic missile commerce is expiring in October 2023.

The ties with Moscow have been growing increasingly close. Indeed since the rapprochement in 1989, the interests of the two Eastern powers have often converged, for example, on critiques of Western sanctions and the JCPOA. Today, the presence of Iranian personnel in Ukraine has the double aim of bringing support, training and know-how to Russian soldiers employing Iranian kamikaze drones, observing their functioning, and finding vulnerabilities to be improved. How do the military doctrines of these two countries meet? What should we expect from their bilateral relationship?

Russia’s military doctrine can be defined by its active pursuit of modernization and expansion in Russian military capabilities, such as investing in new weapons systems and conducting full-scale military exercises. The current doctrine–adopted in 2014–enshrines the importance of securing Russia’s borders and Moscow’s interests overseas, as well as the maintenance of the Kremlin’s strategic nuclear deterrence, vis-à-vis the identification of NATO and the United States' expansion of its missile capacity as a significant threat to Russia’s national security. It also contains the concept of ‘strategic deterrence’, which seeks to deter adversaries from attacking Russia under the notion that Moscow is willing to employ ‘preemptive strikes’ wherever it deems necessary

Similarly, the military doctrine of Iran is centred around the principles of defence and deterrence. Iranian military authorities emphasize the importance of perpetuating a strong, unwavering defensive position to deter potential threats and defend Iran’s territorial sovereignty against external belligerence. The doctrine’s latest update, in 2018, identifies the importance of enhancing and refining Iran’s military capabilities–both conventional and asymmetric–to advance the end goal of protecting Iranian territorial integrity.

The convergence of Russian and Iranian military doctrines through security cooperation is not a new phenomenon. For example, both Tehran and Moscow supported Bashar al-Assad in Syria to assert their geopolitical interests and strategic partnership in the region. However, in the context of the Russo-Iranian strategic partnership vis-à-vis the Ukrainian invasion, we can identify a greater synthesis of the military doctrines of Tehran and Moscow and their respective political and economic objectives. The war in Ukraine provides another dimension to the Russo-Iranian strategic cooperation.

Source: KREMLIN/ALEXANDR DEMYANCHUK via Associated Press

Both Russia and Iran find themselves increasingly isolated from the international community. Thus, strategic military cooperation provides unparalleled economic and political relief for the two ‘quasi-pariahs’. Russia, now a state proficient in the avoidance of sanctions, has been keenly training their Iranian counterparts the same techniques so as to continue fruitful trade between the two nations. Through the provision of loitering munitions–“kamikaze” drones–to Russia on the Ukrainian battlefields, Iran is hopeful it can alleviate the pressures of its current economic position–a position exponentially compounded by sanctions imposed by the West, as well as a metaphoric flex of muscles to its regional adversaries.

For Moscow, importing Iranian drones provides a cheap and effective method of carrying out its strategic goals in Ukraine. Costing roughly $20,000 per unit, Iranian “kamikaze” drones, such as the Shahed-136, strategically emboldens Putin’s war machine at little significant cost to Moscow. The capability of devastation loaded to these drones, however, should not be underexaggerated. Not only does ‘strategically cooperating’ with Iran alleviate the pressures of drone production on a beleaguered Russian economy, but it also perpetuates the likelihood of Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

The so-called strategic cooperation between the Islamic Republic and Russia is in reality, mostly a one-way pact in favour of the Kremlin. Russia has backed its allies, such as Syria and Belarus to suppress the protests ruthlessly. In this case regarding Iran, Russian intervention can be divided into three categories:

  1. Sending forces, which is not possible considering the serious lack of forces on the Ukrainian front. It is also crucial to mention that officials such as Sergei Surovikin who is one of the very few suitable forces to have such a role is now the new commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine.
  2. Intelligence and Security cooperation, which precedent shows cannot exceed a certain level as it is a double-edged blade. Such cooperation in precedent was provided for Ba’ath movement in the Arab world but never exceeded a certain limit
  3. Disinformation and #propaganda support, for which Russia holds the first place in the world but has already offered its best to the Islamic Republic.

Hence, it should not be a point that can discourage the Iranian people. Also, the international community is closely following the Tehran-Kremlin affairs. They will respond to such cooperation under many causes, making them take more serious positions regarding Iran's atrocious human rights violations.

The Islamic Republic’s interest in Russia is mostly based on three main elements. The first element is cooperation regarding the development of satellite technologies because the Islamic republic wants to save its three satellite positions and benefit from Russian satellites, not only for communication means but also for espionage. The second element to consider is Islamic republics’ dependency on the Russian campaign and models of disinformation, which they try to apply within the country. Finally, the third reason is their #intelligence cooperation and their need for structural support from Russia.
Beyond these three elements, we should consider something called “the mad king phase, " a state where it’s a totalitarian system, before its demise, tends to commit grave strategic mistake after strategic mistake.

The response by the international community can only manoeuvre a little on the particular matter of drones because of legal technicalities that make this matter quite hard to analyze. However, it is crucial to consider that the political will to oppose the affluence of the Islamic republic will become much stronger, more systematic, and more collective.

Ukraine’s best strategy to counter the drones made by the Islamic Republic can come from a country that has been studying them for quite a few years. Israel has developed both #IronDome and IronBeam at the Rafael Company by precisely studying and developing mathematical models of the technologies that were used in most of the missiles and drones that came from Gaza and Lebanon, but originated from the Islamic republic. Even though the Israelis have expressed that they will not intervene in this war, it does not keep Israel from giving Ukraine practical, useful intelligence that can help them with countermeasures for these drones.

The convergence of Iranian and Russian interests has constituted a long-lasting partnership characterized by anti-Western sentiments focusing on limiting NATO expansion, protecting and affirming the countries’ respective sovereignty, and enhancing military and technological capabilities. This partnership has materialized, across the years, through a constellation of hard and soft power measures, spacing from exchanges of weapons and military know-how on one hand to the common ideologically-based spread of disinformation and counter-narratives against common enemies on the other. As for now, the war in Ukraine provides new momentum to this allyship as the conflicts continue to evolve.

Whether the international community is effective vis-à-vis Iran and Russia also depends on the cohesiveness of their collective action. We have already witnessed a round of sanctions from the EU and the UK on Iranian drones in October 2022, precisely in response to their use on the Ukrainian conflict. As for the US, punitive measures targeting drones’ producers for Teheran have been issued as of three days ago. While Western power keeps a strict opposing stand against the Iranian-Russian allyship, China may emerge from this as a new mediating power between the two parts. The latter has already facilitated the recent agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore their diplomatic relations. It will discuss a possible resolution of the war in Ukraine with Spanish PM Sanchez in a soon-to-come meeting.

In the meantime, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continues to deny the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Ukraine. Accordingly, and in line with the anti-Western rhetoric previously mentioned, the official position reiterated by the Ayatollah is that the conflict in general was devised as a US-based diversion to justify NATO’s enlargements. As the UK gets ready to send armour-piercing rounds containing depleted uranium to Ukrainian forces, between the Kremlin, already protesting for the use of “nuclear weapons”, and the care recommendations of the UN on radioactive exposure, the conflict confirms to be yet another chessboard where the international power games unfold, with Iran and Russia playing on the same side.

October 5, 2021No Comments

The Disruptive Power of AI applied to Drones

Tate Nurkin talks about the intricacies of AI technologies applied to the military domain and gives us an overview of the AI-powered military programs, what it means for the future of warfare and touches on ethical issues. 

Tate Nurkin is the founder of OTH Intelligence Group and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Interviewer: Arnaud Sobrero

This is ITSS Verona Member Series Video Podcast by the Cyber, AI and Space Team.

ITSS Verona - The International Team for the Study of Security Verona is a not-for-profit, apolitical, international cultural association dedicated to the study of international security, ranging from terrorism to climate change, from artificial intelligence to pandemics, from great power competition to energy security.

June 14, 2021No Comments

The disruptive power of Artificial Intelligence

By: Renata Safina and Arnaud Sobrero

The use of artificial intelligence may change how war is conducted

In 2020, amidst the biggest pandemic the world has seen since the Spanish Flu in 1918, two ex-soviet states were battling over an area of just 4,400 km² in the mountainous region of Nagorno- Karabakh. Armenia and Azerbaijan, so close and yet so far, are two mortal enemies sharing a common DNA.    

This war, at first, seemed like a faraway regional conflict between two neighboring states, away from western Europe and even further from the United States. However, a closer inspection requires us to pay a lot more attention to the conflict. Indeed, this conflict is illustrative of how the extensive use of artificial intelligence-enabled drones can be instrumental in shifting the outcome of a war. Thus, the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the military domain is disrupting the way we approach conventional warfare.

AI means

The use of advanced technological weapons, drones, and loitering munitions supplied by both Israel and Turkey practically won this war for Azerbaijan. In particular, AI-enabled weaponized drones with increasingly autonomous and surveillance capabilities were able to disrupt the battlefield significantly. The deployment of those drones, such as the Turkish TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), had a substantial disruptive impact on the battlefield as the Azeris forces were able to destroy 47% of the Armenian combat vehicles and 93% of its artillery.    

'Harpy' and 'Harop' loitering munitions (LM) are autonomous weapon systems produced by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a state-owned aerospace and aviation manufacturer. A loitering munition or 'kamikaze drone' is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) with a built-in warhead tarrying around an area searching for targets. Once the target is located, the LM strikes the target detonating on impact. The significant advantage of these systems is that during loitering, the attacker can decide when and what to strike. Should the target not be found, the LM returns to the base. In addition, these systems are equipped with machine learning algorithms that can take decisions without human involvement, allowing them to process a large amount of data and decide instantly, revolutionizing the speed and accuracy of the actions.  

Conducting Warfare through AI – Ethical Implications

Those developments in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are already contributing to creating technological surrogates disrupting how we conduct warfare

Wars fought with lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS) equipped with AI are not a vision of a distant future. These weapons are being deployed presently and are a huge game changer and, those 'market disruptors' will once and for all change the way the wars are fought. Former CIA Director and retired Gen. David Petraeus claims that “drones, unmanned ships, tanks, subs, robots, computers are going to transform how we fight all campaigns. Over time, the man in the loop may be in developing the algorithm, not the operation of the unmanned system itself.”

However, military operations conducted without human involvement raise many ethical questions and debates. On one side, supporters argue that LAWS with AI generate fewer casualties due to high precision, and thanks to lack of emotions, can even eliminate war crimes. On the other side, machine learning bias in data input may create unpredictable mistakes. AI decision-making may result in flash wars and rapid escalation of conflicts with catastrophic consequences. Thus, by lowering the cost of war, LAWS might increase the likelihood of conflicts. 

Furthermore, the transfer of the responsibility of decision-making entirely to the machine will drastically distance a human from an act of killing, questioning the morality and ethics of the application of AI for military purposes. Lack of international laws and regulations created a Wild West with developed countries acting as both sheriffs and outlaws. Vigorous debates are already taking place among academics and military organizations in the western world as they are trying to keep up with the increasing technological developments. The resulting discussions triggered the creation of a group of governmental experts on LAWS at the United Nations in 2016. Despite ongoing United Nations discussions, international ban or other regulations on military AI are not likely to happen in the near term. Consequently, before we can fully grasp the consequences of applying artificial intelligence in the military domain and start creating "killer robots'', a more cautious approach should be recommended to limit the deployment of AI systems to less-lethal operations such as bomb disposal, mine clearance and reconnaissance missions.

For all the potential applications of AI to the military domain, the question stays: Will it help us sleep better at night or prevent us from sleeping at all?