Earlier this month, Iranian state television broadcast footage from the opening ceremony of a special event. It wasn’t a soccer match, and the competition didn’t even include any athletes. Rather, it was for a military drone – unmanned aerial system (UAS) – tournament that was launched in the central part of the country, and involved teams from Russia, Belarus, and Armenia.
The 2022 “Falcon Hunting” unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) competition is actually part of the seventh iteration of wider annual military games that have been hosted by Russia since 2015. This year’s drone-specific competition was hosted by the aerospace division of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) near the city of Kashan, where many of the elite force’s drone tests are conducted.
The Falcon Hunting competition was further meant to showcase the one area where the Islamic Republic of Iran has been able to develop military technology that could rival anything being produced in the west. The games could just be a way of highlighting the efforts it has made.
“Iran is holding this competition as part of Russia’s military ‘Olympics,'” said Matthew J. Schmidt, Ph.D., associate professor of national security and political science at the University of New Haven.
Officially known as the International Army Games 2022, the international competition that is hosted by the Ministry of Defense of Russia kicked off on Saturday, August 13.
Iran’s Aging Warbirds
As a nation that has been under U.S.-led sanctions for decades, Iran maintains a military that continues to utilize hardware that is far older than many of its personnel. This is most notable with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, which continues to fly antiquated F-4 Phantom II fighter-bombers, Northrop F-5 and Mirage F-1 fighters, along with a handful of Russian-built Sukhoi Su-24 and Mikoyan Mig-29 combat aircraft.
Iran’s most modern aircraft include a few dozen F-14s that were purchased shortly before the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Tehran has struggled considerably to keep all of its old warbirds flying, in part because Washington has gone to great lengths to limit the maintenance opportunities.
In fact, after the U.S. Navy retired its fleet of F-14 Tomcats in 2006, the United States Department of Defense (DoD) announced that the sale of spare parts would be suspended due to concerns that any of the components could make its way to Iran. Remaining F-14s – apart from those sent to museums – were actually shredded.
Though Tehran has claimed to be developing a new fighter plane, the likely truth is that such efforts are currently beyond the capabilities of the Islamic Republic. It likely lacks the facilities to develop and produce such an aircraft, and instead, it is following the course of another Middle Eastern nation in changing the focus to smaller UAVs.
That country is Turkey, a NATO member that still maintains ties with Russia and even Iran.
Turkey has become a drone powerhouse in recent years, producing its Bayraktar TB2 – which it developed after it failed to close a deal to purchase American-made UAVs. What is also notable is that Ankara had begun selling the TB2 to Ukraine in 2019, and those drones were seen as playing a fundamental role in stopping Russian tanks in the early stages of Moscow’s unprovoked invasion earlier this year.
Moreover, Russia had also expressed interest in the Turkish-built drones, but was unable to conclude a deal. Even as Turkey has purchased the Russian-built S-400 “Triumf” air defense system – which resulted in its expulsion from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program – it is unlikely Ankara would sell any drones to Moscow.
Instead, the Kremlin has reportedly looked to Tehran as a source for drones, and Russia may be desperate enough that it has reportedly floated the idea of trading its Su-35 multirole fighter for Iran’s Shaheds drones.
Though Iran has staunchly maintained that it wouldn’t do anything to escalate the war in Ukraine, Tehran has developed close ties with Moscow. Russian Vladimir Putin even traveled to the Iranian capital last month, reportedly to close the deal. The exact number of aircraft per drone that could be part of the deal hasn’t been made public, yet, it is worth further noting the Su-35 is considered one of the Russian Air Force’s most capable combat aircraft – even as it has lost upwards of two dozen in recent fighting.
That fact that Russia would be willing to trade such planes suggests that Moscow may have lost faith in the Su-35’s capabilities, but there are also suggestions that Moscow may simply not have the trained pilots available to send into combat. That fact could help explain why after nearly six months of fighting, the Kremlin has failed to achieve air superiority in the skies over Ukraine.
Russia has lost scores of tanks and other equipment, along with more personnel to date than the Soviet Union lost in its decade-long war in Afghanistan. The use of drones, which could be controlled remotely from within Russian borders could be necessary as Moscow runs low on trained personnel.
Iranian pilots and technicians are believed to have already arrived in Russia to be trained on the Su-35, whilst Moscow has apparently dispatched teams to Tehran to be trained on the drones.
Drone Tournament Underway
More than 70 military personnel have arrived in Kashan to take part in the Falcon Hunting competition, which is expected to run through August 28. The competing teams will be judged based on performance and consistency in aerial reconnaissance in both day and night operations, including guiding precision artillery strikes.
Whereas Russia often has “home field” advantage during its annual Army Games, Iran has been seen as the favorite going into the drone competition. Beyond the games, all eyes will be on how these UAVs could truly change ground warfare.
“Militaries like Ukraine’s are rapidly innovating the technology and tactics of drones,” explained Schmidt.
“In a sense they’re the first weapons of the new military revolution, which also means militaries are rapidly learning how to counter them already,” he told ClearanceJobs. “Change happens so fast now that it’s hard to compare them to tanks, which emerged and dominated the battlefield arguably until today. I don’t expect drones, or any other single technology, to be able to dominate the battlespace like tanks did. Also, right now drones remain more potent as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) platforms, not fires. They augment and support fires, but they are still secondary as instruments of lethal force. That was never the case for the tank.”