Reports emerged over the past few months that Iran had shipped drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine, and we now have photographic evidence that Russia is deploying them. The images, posted on Twitter by a Ukrainian explosive ordnance disposal specialist, show fragments of a Shahed-136 attack drone, a model that has already been used several times in the Middle East by Iran and its proxies.
Last month, open source flight data showed that up to 42 Iranian cargo flights had landed in Moscow since Putin expanded his invasion of Ukraine in February, up from three cargo flights in 2021. According to other press reporting, Iran has sold several kinds of drones to Russia, the Shahed 171, 129, and even the 191. Russia is one of only a few spacefaring nations. It has an aerospace industry that produces high-performance jet fighters and ICBMs. So what is it doing buying drones from a second-rate power like Iran? It has a lot to do with the complexity of modern drones as well as sanctions.
Russia has bought foreign military drones in the past, starting with its purchase of Hermes 450 drones from Israel after facing this drone in battle with the Georgian military in 2008. Russia continues to operate Israeli drones built under license as the “Forepost” system, and some of these Israeli-designed Russian drones have shown up in combat over Ukraine. The Russian arms industry has worked hard to produce its own domestic modern military drones. But the showpiece of Russia’s modern drone production—the ORAN-10 surveillance drone—might be domestically assembled, but the guts are from all over the place. In July a CNN report on the ORAN-10 showed a thermal camera from France, a Japanese engine, and a sophisticated American circuit board that the Ukrainian technician disassembling the drone says is used to track cell phones. Producing a one-off Russian military drone prototype is one thing, mass producing them is another, and based on this ORAN-10 breakdown, Russia needs foreign help for mass drone production.
Every modern drone needs gyroscopes, tilt sensors, electrical motors, microchips, and sophisticated payloads used for surveillance. Russian industry may be able to master making aluminum wings and fuselages for modern drones, but the guts seem to still be heavily dependent on foreign imports.