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Iran claims breakthrough with Israeli-lookalike combat UAVs

  |   Oct. 7, 2013 at 1:04 PM
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 7 (UPI) -- Iran's Revolutionary Guards say they're now producing armed unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Shahed-129, capable of attacking air and ground targets.

If that's correct, it marks a significant technological advance for the Islamic Republic's defense industry -- even if the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, or UCAVs, do appear to be rip-offs of Israeli or U.S. systems.

In recent days, Iran's military leaders have claimed self-sufficiency in the UAV sector and announced initial production of a combat drone called Raad-85, Farsi for thunder, and the mass production of the Shahed-129, unveiled in September 2012.

The Shahed, or witness, has an operational radius that tops 1,000 miles, can stay aloft for 24 hours and can carry as many as eight indigenous Sadid-1 missiles on four under-wing twin-launchers.

According to the U.S. military website Defense Update, the Shahed-129 is a "precision-guided version of the Zelzal medium-range rocket.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, hailed Shahed-129, built by the IRGC's Aerospace Division, as a major technological breakthrough.

However, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Israel's Hermes 450 UAV, built by Elbit Systems. Analysts say it has the same shape, size, landing gear type and performance characteristics.

Although details of the Shahed's internal systems, sensor arrays and ground control station are not known, the similarities with the Hermes 450 suggests the Iranians may have had access to one of the Israeli craft, possibly lost on a covert mission, and were able to reverse-engineer its components.

Tal Inbar, a UAV specialist with Israel's Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, said photos of the Shahed-129 indicated a size and design similar to Elbit Systems' Hermes 900, with what appeared to be a laser designator for advanced laser-guided anti-tank missiles.

"Based on the visuals, this could be a real UCAV system, not just a mock-up for exhibitions," Inbar observed.

Defense Update said that on the basis of the performance characteristics cited by the Iranians, the Shahed-129 "is a more powerful platform with significantly more payload capacity compared to the Israeli drone.

"Its external shape reflects significant advancement in composite materials fabrication, including the production of large airframe and structural elements."

Defense Update says the Sadid missiles seen on the Shahed-129 "are similar in diameter and container size to the Israeli Spike LR missile," a long-range anti-tank weapon built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.

Iran captured a U.S. stealth RQ-170, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, in December 2011 after it went down over the Islamic Republic during a secret mission for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Iranians claimed they were able to hack into its command system and force it to land. The CIA later admitted Iran had captured one of the highly sensitive surveillance craft designed to evade enemy defenses.

It was believed the Iranians would seek to reverse-engineer the RQ-170.

Indeed, Jafari himself claimed in a Sept. 27, 2012, interview with the semi-official Fars news agency the IRGC had successfully reverse-engineered a version of the RQ-17.

But if that's true, the results have not yet been sighted.

"All the memories and computer systems of this plane have been decoded and some good news will be announced in the near future not just about the RQ-170 and the optimizations that our forces have done on the reverse-engineered model ... but also in areas of other important defense achievements," IRGC Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami said in September without elaborating.

The U.S. weekly Defense News quoted Israeli expert Danny Eshchar as saying he doubted the Shehad-129 was a fully integrated, combat-capable UCAV for various technical reasons.

"It's a real air vehicle, but that's about all," said Eshchar, deputy chief executive of Aeronautics Ltd.

The Iranians also unveiled details of new designs, including photos of a tactical reconnaissance UAV named Yaseer.

The Israeli experts said it appeared to be a copy of the U.S. ScanEagle, manufactured by Insitu, a subsidiary of the Boeing Co.

Iran claimed to have captured one over the Persian Gulf in December 2012, plus two more soon after. The U.S. Navy insisted none of its ScanEagles was missing.

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