While the West is still contemplating sending sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Ukraine, such as the Reaper and the Predator, Moscow and Tehran are taking a step further to bolster Russia’s unmanned aerial capabilities and tip the balance of power in Russia’s favor on the battlefield. Through an “outside-the-box” approach and carefully designed logistics that exploit the West’s vulnerabilities and blind spots, Tehran and Moscow’s partnership is rapidly developing into a threat that could become a permanent fixture in NATO’s backyard. As Russia embarked on its summer offensive, open-source intelligence reported that Moscow’s strike package in Ukraine now includes Iran’s Mohajer-6s (Twitter/@clashreport, June 6).
In February, Western sources argued that Iran had been smuggling drones to Russia in order to aid in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. These allegations were also echoed in the Iranian press (Iran International, February 13). Tehran’s generous package allegedly included at least 18 advanced UAVs, including Mohajer-6s, with all 18 enjoying air-to-ground strike capabilities (Iranwire, February 13). Equipped with much more sophisticated features than the Iranian single-attack kamikaze drones, these UAVs can rapidly become highly lethal assets in the hands of the Russian Armed Forces, which may significantly change the trajectory of the war in Ukraine in Russia’s favor.
Produced by the state-owned Qods Aviation Industries, the Mohajer-6 is a mid-range (1200 miles) combat drone with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities (Iribnews.ir, January 7, 2022). It can carry laser-guided munitions and offer its operator sophisticated air-to-ground strike capabilities. As opposed to the single-attack Shahed-136s actively used by the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine, the Mohajer-6 is a multipurpose drone that can return to its base after each strike. This provides a much more sustainable and flexible concept of operations (CONOPS). In addition, with its low production price and high effectiveness, the Mohajer-6s are a significant asset to any force that needs cheap and high-performance UAVs—with Russia serving as a prime example (Iran Press, January 1, 2022).
A Force Multiplier for Iranian Proxies
In the past, the Mohajer-6 supported Iran’s state-related entities and proxy groups in various ways. At present, it is actively used by the Iranian Navy and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). According to U.S. intelligence, a Mohajer-6 operated by the IRGC was downed on its way to Erbil in the Kurdish Region of Iraq in September 2022 (US Central Command, September 28, 2022). The IRGC has also used the Mohajer-6 in the mountainous areas in the Iraqi-Kurdistan border region against Kurdish insurgents (Tasnim News, July 12, 2019). Other operational advantages that the IRGC derived from the Mohajer-6s involved surveillance and intelligence gathering on militant groups, such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as managing border traffic and security.
The Mohajer-6 is also proliferating fast among Tehran’s proxies across different conflict zones. Open-source intelligence suggests that Iranian-backed militant groups, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, have a stockpile of more than 2,000 drones (Al Mayadeen, December 23, 2021). This includes advanced drones, and potentially the Mohajer-6. Hezbollah is also known to work closely with the IRGC, which strengthens the possibility that Hezbollah has access to the group’s drone program and capabilities (Gulf International Forum, October 18, 2022). Based in Yemen, the Houthis also often resort to the use of Iranian drones, such as in the strikes against Israeli and Saudi targets, like oil tankers off Abu Dhabi’s coast (Twitter/adityarajkaul, January 17, 2022). As a critical asset in the hands of Tehran’s militias, the Mohajer-6 has thus become a serious force multiplier for Iran’s proxies.
Besides its active use by insurgent groups, the Mohajer-6 has also entered the arsenal of various countries and has multiple operator states. In fact, the UAV has been combat-tested on various fronts and entered state inventories in Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, and Venezuela. In Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is using the Mohajer-6 in its fight against the rebels in Tigray (Military Africa, August 27, 2021). And in Venezuela, the UAV was spotted in a live speech by President Maduro on the future production of multipurpose drones (Twitter, November 20, 2020). In the hands of governments with friendly ties with Tehran, these drones can significantly disrupt the power balances and the security environment in a given region.
After Syria and Ethiopia, open-source intelligence suggests that the Mohajer-6s next performance test is taking place on the battlefield in Ukraine. In fact, the Mohajer-6 drones were already spotted in Ukraine in the first few months of the Russian invasion (Defense of Ukraine, October 3, 2022). The first instance where the Ukrainian Armed Forces downed a Mohajer-6 was in Odesa in late September (General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, October 7, 2022).
Filling important operational gaps in the Russian toolbox, the Mohajer-6s support Moscow in two critical ways. According to Ukrainian intelligence, the Mohajer-6s were mainly used in a tactical sense, such as in missions mostly related to advanced surveillance and intelligence gathering on the positions of Ukrainian platforms and troops (General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, November 8, 2022). In addition, they helped Russia’s Shahed-136 offensives by providing the kamikaze drones with guidance support.
The Mohajer-6s can also help Moscow to close the gap in its rapidly depleting air fleet (Oryx, March 20, 2022). In addition, they can provide a cheaper alternative to the soaring costs of Russia’s indigenous drone programs (due to Western sanctions). Further, the arrival of new and advanced drones, such as the Mohajer-6, would be a major burden for the Ukrainian air defenses, which are already pressured by the swarms of Iranian loitering munitions. The intensive use of the Shahed-136s has been a key threat for Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure and urban population centers. The expansion of Russia’s unmanned aerial strike package to include the Mohajer-6s can amplify this trend and lead to a complicated scenario for Ukrainian defenses and military decision-makers.
Potential Transit Routes: The Caspian Sea and Aerial Transfers with Civilian Airlines
Open-source intelligence suggests that the deliveries of the Mohajer-6 are likely to be done through two routes: the air route, which is facilitated by the use of civilian airlines to cover these shady arms transfers (Iran International, December 15, 2022); and the water route, which is through the Caspian Sea (Iran Wire, February 13). The first one is a rather conventional, yet a neglected route, while the second is a more unconventional and creative one.
In the past, Iran has resorted to its civilian airlines to transfer arms and military personnel to conflict zones. In Syria, Tehran kept Bashar al-Assad’s lifeline open by providing arms and weapon systems using Mahan Air and Iran Air, which are known for providing financial and technical support to the IRGC and the Quds Force, as well as to other insurgent groups (Iran International, December 15, 2022). In Yemen, it was Mahan Air that built an air bridge between Iran and Yemen to transfer arms to the Houthi proxies in 2015 (Al Masdar, February 4, 2022). U.S. intelligence agencies argue that Iran has flown around 70 secret flights to military complexes in Russian airports. These aged planes (mostly 747s) belonged to the IRGC, which heightened the possibility that Tehran is following a similar path to boost Russia’s capabilities against Ukraine (Forbes, November 16, 2022). Although the West has sanctioned these airlines multiple times, the resurgence of this tactic in Ukraine shows that the current policy still has loopholes.
The second route for Iranian arms transfers, including the packages that can include the Mohajer-6, goes through a region where the West has little control. In November 2022, some sources claimed that Tehran has indeed been considering this option. According to Ukrainian intelligence services, Iran had plans to transfer 200 disassembled Shahed-136s, Mohajer-6, and Arash-2 drones to Russia via the Caspian Sea (Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, November 1, 2022). At present, the Caspian region has become a major transport hub for Iranian supplies and the Volga-Don Canal connects the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Azov. The former is subject to heavy Persian control, while the latter is (for the time being) effectively a “Russian lake.” This creates a situation where Iran and Moscow can establish a safe transfer route in a region outside of the West’s control and oversight.
Russia’s use of the Iranian Mohajer-6s in Ukraine will place heavy pressure on Ukrainian air defenses and military personnel, already burdened by Iranian loitering munitions. This additional boost for Russia’s strike capabilities will also significantly increase Moscow’s aggression towards Ukrainian targets, including civilian infrastructure. However, this development should not only be read as an Iranian “success,” but rather as an indicator of the West’s vulnerabilities in contested geopolitical hotspots.