The apparent downing of an Iranian unmanned system is providing a good look at Tehran's indigenous high-end drone.
On Aug. 13, social media began buzzing with pictures of what appears to be a crashed Shahed 129. Defense News cannot independently confirm whether these photos are legit, but it has not observed pushback from the knowledgeable aerospace community on Twitter that would indicate these are fakes.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which unveiled the system in 2012, has claimed the Shahed has a range of 1,700 kilometers and can stay aloft for 24 hours; it can also be armed with up to eight missiles. It is Iran's first medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) system, roughly analogous to the US Air Force fleet of MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers.
Of note: These pictures are reportedly taken from inside Iranian territory, but very close to the Pakistan border. It is possible Iran is using these systems to keep an eye on its territory; it is also possible, though pure speculation, that they are using the Shahed to sneak a peak over the border into Pakistan.
It's not the first time the Shahed 129 has been spotted out in the wild. In 2014, video appeared on YouTube showing what looks like the Shahed flying over Damascus, Syria. Iran, of course, has been supporting the Assad government in the Syrian civil war.
Defense News Israeli bureau chief Barbara Opall-Rome wrote about Iran's unmanned system development programs back in 2013. At the time, she wrote:
"As for the Shahed 129, details released by Tehran claim the unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) can carry up to eight weapons and remain airborne for 24 hours with an effective operational radius of 1,700 kilometers. Although the system was first unveiled a year ago, photos released last week show the UCAV in its armed configuration, with a pair of apparently laser-guided anti-tank missiles carried under each wing."
"Shahed 129 can easily track and identify … anyone targeting the Islamic Republic of Iran's sustainable security and can fire missiles at them upon orders from commanders," Iran's Press TV quoted Brig. Gen. Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC's Aerospace Division, as saying.
Tal Inbar, a UAV expert with Israel's Fisher Institute for Strategic Air and Space Studies, noted that Iran did not release weight, wingspan or payload capacity of the Shahed 129. Nevertheless, from photos and video footage, Inbar estimated a size and design similar to the Hermes 900 by Israel's Elbit Systems. He also noted 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 said.
In an Oct. 1, 2013, interview, Inbar said the Shahed 129 would have less endurance and range than the Israeli Hermes 450 or 900 systems. But due to its similar design, Inbar said it could be problematic for Israel if transferred to Iran's Lebanese-based ally Hezbollah.
"Because its profile and radar signature resemble our own UAVs, the introduction of this system to our region has significance," he said.