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.

Source: https://president.ir/fa/135803   

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.

March 31, 2022No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinar Series: “The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: What’s Next?” with Tracey German (KCL)

For its forth event of the 2021/22 Webinar Series, entitled "The Russian-Ukrainian Conflict: What's Next?", ITSS Verona members Ludovica Brambilla, Davide Gobbicchi and Fabrizio Napoli (from the Russia and Post-Soviet Space Team) discuss with Dr Tracey German (KCL) - one of Europe's main experts on Russian affairs - the status of the conflict in Ukraine, narratives, strategies, winners and losers, and political, social, cultural, economic implications for all actors involved.

Do not miss on the other ITSS Verona webinars, which are available at the following link: https://www.itssverona.it/activities

October 22, 2021No Comments

Loitering Munitions, the new frontier of XXI° Century warfare

By: Marco Verrocchio, Danilo delle Fave

Source Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/silhouette-of-camera-drone-flew-in-mid-air-442587/


In recent years, the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has increased rapidly, thanks to the successful use in unconventional warfare theatres, as well as for civil purposes, such as environmental disasters. Ranging from Aerial Reconnaissance to package delivery, their use is now consolidated all over the world in everyday life. Due to the large use of them in different fields, there is a significant interest in developing drones conceived to accomplish specific military purposes. Among them, today a new kind of drones is proving very popular among armed forces: The loitering munitions swarm. This weapon system combines the advantages of a UAV with the specifics of a swarm SAM rocket system with anti-armor, anti-personnel and anti-material targets. Called also “suicide drone” or “kamikaze drone”, a loitering munition differs from a conventional UAV because it is only equipped with an explosive warhead in order to crash towards the target. 

Although the interest in this kind of weapon rose recently, the development of an unmanned flying bomb can be tracked back to Nazi’s Germany. The German V-1 (Vergeltungswaffen 1 - retaliation weapon 1) can be considered as an ancestor of the loitering munitions weapon. It was an unmanned jet propelled flying bomb used to terrorize the civilians of Allied cities, especially London and Antwerp. In addition to be unmanned and one-target, the V-1 shared different features with the current loitering system, including low-cost production and easy assembly. Nowadays the modern loitering munition has been developed on a large scale by the Israeli Harop loitering munition system: presented in February 2009 at the Aero-India show, he represents the main model of modern loitering munitions for airforces around the world.

The modern use of loitering munitions

At the beginning, the initial model of loitering munition was designed to autonomously attack one kind of defensive installation, with the development of the communication system, technology, processing and miniaturized sensors, today the loitering munitions can serve a range of functions in war once reserved for crewed aircraft or artillery.

An example of their use during a conflict, and how they can influence the strategy of the warfare system, was during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where both Azerbaijan and Armenia used the loitering munitions in order to destroy the anti-air defences of the opponent. In addition to that, the loitering munitions can be exploited to turn into a missile and crash into a target without needing direct human supervision. 

This action was seen last year in march, when a drone was used in this way against a human target. The episode happened in Libya, and there was a convoy of the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar, which was attacked by drones, that may have included a Kargu-2 autonomous quadcopter and loitering munitions. 

Through the use of the loitering munitions during conflict or not, it is clear the fundamental importance of the airspace in the battlefield and moreover the necessity to establish a regulation of their use, because at the moment this technology, which enables this weapon system to be used without human control and to target people, is being used without regulation.

The future of unmanned warfare 

Loitering munitions and its systematic use has highlighted the new frontiers of warfare. As proven by recent experiments and projects, militaries around the world are developing programs in order to introduce the use of massive swarm attacks by drones, and countermeasures to drone warfare. Loitering munitions represents a peculiar use of drone warfare, which could be exploited primarily in the context of hybrid warfare. The most advanced militaries have the technology to implement countermeasures, from electromagnetic interference to anti-drone drones, while middle and small armies are the most affected by these cheap and effective weapons. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has shown how efficient are the loitering munitions against old SAM systems, which were the main target of the drone strikes by Azeri army: after annihilating air defences, the aviation had proceed to operate without the risks of anti-aircraft fire, and with the help of the loitering munitions, it destroyed the Armenian fortification, allowing a swift victory. Without loitering munitions, the war would have been dragged into a stalemate, as the Armenians would have entrenched themselves with the help of the mountains. Therefore, these new weapons would probably see implementation by military forces, like Iran and Turkey,  who would provide their proxies with them. For instance, the Houtis or Hamas have the interest to economically logorate their adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Israel: the high cost of air defence systems as the THAAD, could be exploited to increase the “war fatigue” of their enemies, with the use of cheap loitering munitions. 

Unmanned warfare is going to revolutionize the way in which war is fought: low tech will present the main challenge to the advanced militaries around the world, since the massive use of loitering munitions can saturate defence systems, no matter how advanced they are. The mix between high tech and low tech could drop to its knee even the mightiest army: loitering munitions represents pre-eminently the spearhead of low tech warfare in modern wars. 

September 23, 2021No Comments

Carl von Clausewitz: a milestone in the History of Strategic Thought

By: Danilo delle Fave, Javier Olaechea and Marco Verrocchio.

Carl von Clausewitz was born at Burg, in Prussia on the 1st of June 1780. His family had Polish origins and belonged to the Prussian middle-class. Aged twelve, in 1792 he entered the Prussian army as standard-bearer. He received his baptism by fire during the siege of Mainz in 1793, but he showed to be more interested in war, theory, and strategy. 

He started reading Frederick the Great’s “General Principles of War” and moved on to studying Machiavelli, Montecuccoli and other military strategy theorists. Clausewitz lived in a culturally successful period for European and German philosophy, so his thought was influenced by his contemporary philosophers such as Kant, Fichte, Schiller, and Hegel. During the war with France, he was present at the battle of Auerstaedt. After being held prisoner in Paris for a year, he was convinced of the need to reform the army and to apply new strategies. 

Once back in Prussia, Clausewitz joined General Gerhard von Scharnhorst in the attempt to reform the Army. Together they introduced conscription and limited the privileges of the nobility in the army, to create a more meritocratic military. Clausewitz also proposed the idea of “People in Arms”, a reserve force to defend the country on the side-lines. In 1810, Clausewitz married Maria von Brhul, a woman of noble origins close to the Court. When in 1812, Prussia (under the pressure of Napoleon) sided with France against Russia, Clausewitz and other officers joined the Tsarist troops.

He believed that the most dangerous enemy was Napoleon rather than Russia and soon he became an officer of tsarist-Prussian troops, fighting also at Borodino. In 1813, He played a key role in convincing General Yorck to sign the armistice of Tauroggen. Until the end of Napoleon, Clausewitz fought in the greatest battles in Western Europe such as the Battle of the Nations and Ligny. The period between 1818 and his death (occurred in 1831) was one of the more prosperous times for his studies. Clausewitz’s masterpiece, Vom Kriege (On War), was published in 1832, one year after his death. It was published thanks to the will of his wife Maria von Brhul, who also contributed to writing the introduction of the book. One (if not the only one) case of a woman who wrote an introduction to a classic of war strategy. 

 Why is Carl Von Clausewitz so important for our time? 

Carl von Clausewitz’s works have been studied extensively for 150 years by dedicated scholars and Clausewitz is acknowledged as one of the few great writers on war. Many aspects of his ideas and concepts have received much attention in recent years and continue to remain relevant and are often used in today’s doctrines and for civil-military educational processes. The most important theoretical aspects of war and strategy expounded by Clausewitz, some of which are enduring contributions to contemporary thought and still relevant to today’s strategists.

The first is "War is nothing but the continuation of policy with other means" and the second is " War is not a mere act of policy, but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means". The third is “War is an act of force to compel out enemy to do our will”. In addition to these quotes, Clausewitz is important to our time for the meaning of war, but also for his purpose, and suggest to task to follow to reach our goals on the field, which are still used nowadays:

  • First Task: planning for a war requires identifying the enemy's center of gravity and if possible, trace them back to a single one; (examples: enemy's army, capital or allies)
  • Second Task: To ensure that the main forces to be used to attack that point are concentrated for a main offensive.

Insights and Lessons for our Times: 

  • Delimitation of the final objectives: a war is not started, or rationally it should not be done, without the definition of its political and geo strategic aim, in the short term, and its ultimate goal, in the long run. In short, a total war that includes the civilian element and seeks unconditional surrender (World War II) is not the same as a limited war whose objective is to restore a previous situation (Las Malvinas).
  • Active defence: defence cannot be conceived without offensive reactions. Apparently, the defender has the advantage, but mere defence is incompatible with victory. If defence is ever necessary, it should be seen as a step prior to counterattack.
  • Operational flexibility: when two armies engage in combat, there are always elements who emerge unexpectedly, or that behave differently than planned (the so-called “friction”). The battlefield is dynamic, the military commander must know how to adapt to the circumstances. In addition, having a strategic reserve allows dealing with unforeseen situations.
  • Troop’s morale: The morale of the troop must be taken care of; it is a determining factor. A well-equipped army, immune to disinformation strategies through specific training, fights better and performs better under stress.
  • Limits of the action: every commander must know the limit of the army’s strength, in order to avoid losing what they have gained on the battlefield. This operational limit has to be clear at the time of planning.
  • Intelligence analysis: every decision maker must obtain intelligence reports in order to make decision at the strategic level in the right direction otherwise the decision making is likely to be taken over by method and routine, with potentially disastrous results

Since the end of the Cold War and the revamping of unconventional warfare, Clausewitz’s work has renewed significance for scholars and academics. However, even during the Cold War, it continued to be a milestone for several leaders and decision-makers. Roosevelt, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung and Hitler were among the important readers of Clausewitz. For instance, Lenin enlarged the concept of war as policy with other means to explain the conflict of the social classes. 

Today, the lucid approach of Clausewitz to war can be a useful help in understanding how to deal with asymmetrical threats in different fields.  The recent defeat in Afghanistan shows how it can be possible to win battles but lose the war. Clausewitz draws from his age concepts still used today: moral hazard, guerrilla, the importance of the human factor, etc. and therefore, On War remains even today, a benchmark for military and strategic thought.

September 20, 2021No Comments

Cybersecurity and Society

The team "Culture, Society, and Security" interviews Dr. Madeline Carr, Professor of Global Politics and Cyber Security in the Faculty of Engineering Science at the University College of London and Dr. Camino Kavanagh, visiting fellow at King’s College London, and member of UN advisory support team for negotiating processes related to cyber and international security.

Interviewing Team: Julia Hodgins and Sofia Staderini