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Syria’s “New” Iranian Drone

January 28, 2016

By Adam Rawnsley

Translations: Русский

Iran has sent another model of drone to northern Syria, according to imagery posted on social media in the latter half of 2015. Pictures of wreckage taken inside Syria indicate that Turkey shot down the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in a May border incident in which Turkish officials claimed the aircraft violated Turkish airspace. The drone also appeared over the southern suburbs of Aleppo in October as a Syrian offensive, backed by Iranian ground troops and Russian jets, was underway in the province, according to a photo posted to Facebook.

The aircraft in the imagery is an Iranian tactical reconnaissance drone with a V-tail and rotary engine in a pusher configuration, resembling a smaller version of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp – Aerospace Force’s (IRGC-AF) purported medium altitude long endurance Shahed-129 drone. In contrast to the boastful publicity Iran often lavishes on the drones it produces, Iranian officials have revealed relatively little about the drone, leaving few clues about its specifications or even its name.

The pictures from Syria match an Iranian drone seen in photographs of a crash in Saravan, Iran in February 2014. Iranian television has broadcast footage of UAVs which appear to be the same or slight variants of the model seen in Syria, but photographs from the Saravan crash remain the best available source of reference imagery for identifying the drone.

The “Shahed-123,” as an Iranian military forum labeled it, after a February 2014 crash in Saravan, Iran.

The “Shahed-123,” as an Iranian military forum labeled it, after a February 2014 crash in Saravan, Iran.

Iranian military forum posters have referred to the Saravan drone as the “Shahed-123,” a plausible designation, but drawing firm conclusions about the drone’s name or capabilities is difficult in absence of further information from Iranian officials.

Turkey Wreckage

On May 16, a Turkish F-16 flying out of Incirlik Air Base shot down an aircraft it accused of violating Turkish airspace near the Cilvegozu border crossing with Syria. Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz claimed it was a Syrian helicopter. However, a subsequent statement by the Turkish Armed Forces referred only generally to the downing of “a Syrian aircraft.” Syria rejected the assertions of a lost helicopter, claiming instead that it had lost a drone in the incident.

Pictures of the wreckage posted on Twitter and in news outlets support Syria’s claim that the aircraft shot down was a drone, given the lack of a recovered pilot, alive or deceased, and wreckage inconsistent with a helicopter.

The wreckage and Syria’s contention that it lost a drone in the incident further narrows the pool of candidates for the aircraft, as Syria’s UAV fleet is comprised mostly of Iranian drones, with the notable exception of Soviet-era Tu-143 Reys. Two photographs taken in Syria where the wreckage of the aircraft landed reveal an engine cowling, rotary engine, V-tail stabs and a landing skid that are consistent with the components seen on the “Shahed-123” drone which crashed in Saravan, Iran.

Engine Cowling

Two pictures taken at the scene of the crash in Syria show a metal cowling atop a rotary engine from two different angles — one showing the cowling as it appears from the rear of the aircraft and the other lying on its side.

cowling-1cowling-2

Zooming in on the second picture and turning it upside down offers a clearer view of the cowling as it would appear looking at the starboard side of the aircraft.

Improved Cowling Pullout 1 rotate

A number of similarities are apparent when compared to the engine cowling on the Saravan “Shahed-123.”

d99068f9-af68-4ec5-8dde-42377c666aed

The cowling in both the Syria and Saravan pictures have the same shape with an inlet that rises above the fuselage to allow air to reach the engine. Each has a seam that runs along the side of the engine, splitting the covering into top and bottom pieces held together by bolts.

The cowlings on both aircraft also have serial numbers in roughly the same position. The Saravan Shahed has a three digit serial number painted both above and below the seam where it meets the aircraft’s rear fuselage. In the Syria picture, the lower half of the cowling is missing, but the number 8 is visible. The number is painted above the seam in approximately the same place as the Saravan imagery, albeit to the left of a bolt hole rather than above it. The area to the left of the number is slightly discolored, suggesting scuffs or scratch marks that may explain the single vs. triple digit discrepancy in serial numbers seen in the two images.

Engine

Both the aircraft wreckage in Syria and the Saravan aircraft show a rotary engine in a pusher configuration that is consistent with another apparent source of “Shahed-123” reference imagery: a November 2014 Iranian TV program highlighting Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps annual military technological achievements. The broadcast shows workers assembling a UAV, with an upsweep on the rear fuselage, a two-tone paint scheme and yellow prongs for attaching V-tail stabs that are all consistent with a “Shahed-123.”

Note: Saravan image is a mirror reverse of the original for ease of comparison

Note: Saravan image is a mirror reverse of the original for ease of comparison

The November 2014 program shows workers testing out a rotary engine and attaching it to the rear fuselage of the UAV in a pusher configuration.

V-tail Stabs and Landing Strut

The two photos of the Syria wreckage where the engine is visible also show an elongated rectangular plank lying at a roughly 45-degree angle relative to the rear fuselage fragment. The shape and placement of the object is consistent with a V-tail stab that may have broken off on impact with the ground.

Another picture from the scene of the crash in Syria shows men carting away pieces of the aircraft wreckage, including, as some noted on Twitter at the time of the crash, curved piece of metal. The size and shape of the object is consistent with the curved struts on the landing skids of the Saravan “Shahed-123.”

landing

Aleppo Image

Five months after the incident along the Turkish Syrian border, Syrian opposition new outlet Halab Today TV published an image on its Facebook page along with a description saying the picture showed a “drone that belongs to the regime and its allies in the sky of the southern side of Aleppo suburbs.” The drone in the Facebook picture matches the “Shahed-123,” with the same metal landing skids, V-tail and general shape seen in the Saravan imagery.

overhead-drone

Designation and the Shahed Family of Drones

Some evidence supports the claim offered by Iranian military forum posters that Iran has designated the drone seen in Saravan and, by extension, Syria as the “Shahed-123,” placing the aircraft within Iran’s better-known Shahed family of drones.

First, the name matches the 12X format of Iran’s Shahed family of UAVs, which is comprised of three officially-designated members. The Shahed-129 is the most famous of the family, which Iran claims is capable of firing Sadid air-to-ground missiles. Iranian media has also acknowledged two other Shahed UAVs: the Shahed-121 and Shahed-125.

As Oryx noted in an inventory of Iranian weapons, Iranian media aired video of the Shahed-125, which resembles the U.S. RQ-7 Shadow drone, at an August 2014 defense exhibition in Iran. Confirmed imagery of the Shahed-121, despite IRGC-AF chief Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh claiming its presence the “Towards Jerusalem” exercise in November 2015, is not yet evident.

oryx-shahed

As if to emphasize the Shahed-125’s aspirations, the image on the poster behind the drone itself is of an American RQ-7 Shadow.

Second, a photograph posted to an Iranian military forum suggests that Iran produced a drone with the name “Shahed-123.” In 2010, a member of the military.ir forum posted a picture of a chart titled “UAV manufacturing” purportedly taken at an Iranian aviation museum showing production numbers for different models of Iranian military UAVs in the Iranian calendar years 1384 and 1385 (corresponding to March 2005 through March 2007). Among the models listed are a “Shahed-123,” three of which were produced as of March 2007 according to the chart.

Improved S123 Chart

Until firmer evidence linking a name to images of the UAV appear, the “Shahed-123” designation remains speculative.

Other Sightings of “Shahed-123”-like UAVs in Iranian Media

Iranian television has run footage of a number of UAVs since 2012 that look similar to the “Shahed-123” but the limited, often blurry and distant footage combined with Iran’s generally murky drone nomenclature makes it difficult to say whether they represent slight variants of the “Shahed-123” or entirely different, as-yet unidentified models.

Early July, 2012: Iranian television teases video of a number of UAVs which Iran hasn’t yet been officially rolled out, including the Yasir and the Shahed-129. Two drones similar to the “Shahed-123” are visible in the program, one with landing skids and another model which resembles a “Shahed-123” with tricycle landing gear instead of metal skids. [Photos via Uskowi On Iran blog]

two-drones

March 11, 2013: The Aviationist runs a story on a photograph reportedly showing IRGC troops placing an unidentified drone fished out of the waters near Jask, home to an Islamic Republic of Iran Navy base, onto the back of a pickup truck. Seaweed and mud obscure much of the UAV, but the size, V-tail stabs, metal landing skids and engine in a pusher configuration all point to a “Shahed-123.”

toyota

May 11, 2014: The IRGC-AF holds an exhibition attended by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, showing off a number of the service’s aircraft and equipment, including Iran’s alleged copy of the U.S. RQ-170 drone. Iranian news sites report that the Shahed-121 and Shahed-125 drones were present at the exhibition. Iranian military forum members also notice a handful of UAVs similar to the “Shahed-123” in the background of footage from the exhibition.

irgc

November 2014: The aforementioned November 2014 Iranian TV program featuring a “Shahed-123” under construction also runs footage of two other, similar UAVs featuring tricycle landing gears instead of metal skids. The first one, painted with the colors of the Iranian flag, is shown with a piece of fairing covering the junction between the wings and fuselage and a second appears without the fairing but sporting a more pointed nose.

Nov14_vlcsnap-00001 Nov14_vlcsnap-00005

September 2015: Iranian television runs a documentary on Iranian aerospace technologies, which includes a shot of UAV looking much like the Saravan “Shahed-123” shortly after taking off. The presence of an apparent launch rail in the background as the drone becomes airborne suggests that it may be capable of taking off from a mobile launcher, either by catapult or or jet-assisted take off, as a number of other Iranian drones are.

Improved Nov 15 Launch Image
Adam Rawnsley

Adam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring. You can follow him on Twitter at @arawnsley.

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24 Comments

      • Randy Dread

        is America so far ahead these days? doesn’t look like it.

        seems like a few militaries around the world could give america a good ass kicking.

        Reply
        • John Zenwirt

          Yes, the Israeli Air Force could give US pilots a run for their money. Who else is on yer mind, Randy, I study military history…

          Reply
          • john ruchie

            Remember when Israel almost attacked in 91 war,Bush said I will shoot all you down ? and all the Israel jets returned!!!!! Israel is a joke!!

          • Randy Dread

            Well i saw China’s military parade.

            They had all kinds of stuff, armed drones, anti carrier missiles etc.

        • Ana

          American military primacy is an established fact.

          Even the Chinese acknowledge that their latest drones don’t hold a candle to the U.S. Which is why they sell for so much cheaper.

          Reply
  1. John Zenwirt

    John Ruchie: “Israel is a joke!!”

    By worldwide, common knowledge Israel has one, of if not the best air forces pilot per pilot…

    Your post is factually dead wrong and ridiculous…

    Reply
  2. John Zenwirt

    Randy:

    “Well i saw China’s military parade.”

    Believing a military Parade equals high-tech, war-fighting proficiently, is just very wrong…

    Reply
    • Randy Dread

      looked pretty powerful to me. No way the US is going to dare take that on.

      The US military is composed of losers from the bottom echelon of society. They have very low intelligence. There are many criminal gang members. And of course there are now lots of gays and women (nothing against them) in the US Navy.

      They can’t fight a real opponent.

      Reply
      • Ana

        Why would gays and women impact the fighting ability of the USN?

        Of course a parade is meant to “look powerful” but that’s not in anyway indicative of an ability of a military to conduct complex combined arms operations and BNC in a high spectrum combat.

        They are right to call out such nonsense.

        Reply
      • John Zenwirt

        Randy, you are actually saying that the Chinese navy is on a par with, or superior to, the USA Navy…?

        They have not ONE operational aircraft carrier, and that is only an ancient Soviet one, being slowly re-furbished.

        The US has twelve Carrier “Groups” of many supporting ships/subs..In blue water there is NO comparison….

        Reply
  3. john ruchie

    Why then why did Israel lose a fourth of their tanks and a navel ship to Lebanon in 2006,and Lebanon had No Air cover!!!! And take away our massive 3 billion We hand them every year, Israel won’t do grap!!

    Reply
    • Randy Dread

      Hezbollah gave Israel an asskicking in 2006..

      Severely damaged an Israeli warship and rekt numerous Merkava tanks.

      Reply
  4. Andrea

    You can have the most deadly weapons in the world … but as long as your army has no real combat experience … and as long as top ranks are put there only for political reasons ….

    Reply
  5. john ruchie

    It all lies in the heart of the people in the land they are defending! The will of the people who want to hang on to it! Hezbollah came out in 1985 to drive everybody off their land!! Read the book about them! I have it ? peace ✌ out!!!!?

    Reply
    • Jerry

      Claiming hezbollah won against Israel is quite an ignorant but ideological claim to make particularly when their leader came out in the end eating his words and regretting the war. This is a highly trained, motivated terrorist group who uses high tech weapons, very few armies could deal with such a threat let alone a conscription army. None the less, they are cowards who fight behind women and children with no regard for their own people’s lives or possessions. The takfiris are handing them a beating at their own game

      Reply
      • yere

        Israel started a war to annihilate the Hizbollah, yet after 33 days, forced to retreat without gaining anything, with more casualty than Hizbollah, plus a ruined legacy, before that Israel was considered the forth powerful army, what about now?
        who is coward, Israelis terrored a young Hizbollah fighter “Jihad Moqnieh” in Syria, yet didn’t dare to take the responsibility, but unlike Israelis, Hizbollah retaliated in the middle of the day when Israelis were fully alerted and prepared, and took the responsibility, Israelis did nothing but killing some European UN soldiers!
        Cowards are Israelis who couldn’t fight against Hizbollah fighters and instead bombarded the Lebanon cities in the name of fighting the Hizbollah.

        Reply
    • John Zenwirt

      john ruchie:

      “It all lies in the heart of the people in the land they are defending!”

      That’s why the Israelis always win every big battle they are in with any Arab state.

      1948, 1956, 1967, (victory in less than a week), 1973, all Arab wipe-outs…

      Reply

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