Attack of the drones: The true power of Iraqi paramilitaries' aircraft revealed
Their use in Iraq by Shia paramilitaries has risen alongside other Iranian proxies, such as Yemen’s Houthi movement. Iran itself appears to be using attack drones - most recently last week on the Israeli-managed Mercer Street cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman.
So far, however, the capabilities of drones used in Iraq against US targets seem far less deadly than those launched from Yemen.
Yet paramilitary commanders and Iraqi military officers warn Middle East Eye, several armed factions have the capabilities to stage far deadlier drone attacks than seen so far.
The reason we have yet to see such assaults, they say, is because the factions are reluctant to provoke Washington into a ferocious retaliation.
Already, routine drone attacks on Iraqi military bases hosting US forces, diplomatic missions in Baghdad, and vital government facilities are testing the patience of the Iraqi and US governments and the international community.
Since April alone, at least 10 drone attacks have struck targets across the country.
Most cause little human and material losses. But they nonetheless raise thorny questions about the targets’ security and the capacities of Iranian-backed armed factions. They also keep pressure up on US troops, who the factions are desperate to see the back of and insist must depart Iraq before the attacks cease.
Paramilitary commanders, Iraqi army officers and observers told MEE that at least three Iraqi armed factions have the necessary technical and weapons' capabilities to launch massive and brutal attacks using drones.
But several prominent commanders of armed factions said they avoid revealing their actual capabilities and deliberately limit the damage they cause.
One commander said the paramilitaries could launch drone attacks as significant as those the Houthis stage on Saudi oil facilities and airports, but do not for several reasons.
"Major and brutal attacks inevitably trigger harsh reactions. The factions do not want to harm the Americans, fearing their painful strikes,” the commander said.
The “psychological pressure” and “media echo” caused by more limited drone strikes are all that the factions need at the moment, he added.
The argument that Iran-backed armed groups do not want to reveal their true drone capabilities may at first seem somewhat ridiculous. After all, a month ago the factions appeared to do all they could to show off their arsenal.
The display included most of the weapons and forces at the PMA’s disposal, including a number of drones that the PMA later tried to deny were part of the parade.
However, MEE obtained exclusive images of the crafts in the parade. All of them are Iranian-made and some were assembled inside Iraq, according to specialist Iraqi officers and PMA commanders.
Included in the parade were Mohajer 6, Sahab 1, Sahab, Baaz and Safir drones, easily identifiable as the PMA even wrote their names on the vehicles carrying them around Camp Ashraf.
"These planes are used for reconnaissance purposes and are available to most Iraqi forces, except for the Mohajer plane," a senior PMA official told MEE.
"Mohajer is a new generation Iranian bomber drone.”
The Mohajer 6 is an Iranian-made and designed combat drone that is equipped with two smart precision-guided aerial missiles. It carries out reconnaissance, surveillance and combat missions with a wide operational range and continued flight for up to 12 hours.
Compared to the paramilitaries’ other drones, these turned heads when they appeared at the parade.
However a number of PMA commanders, military officers and Shia politicians downplayed their significance, insisting that the Mohajers on display were for propaganda purposes more than anything. Most of them are not actually operational, they said.
"These models are mostly for demonstration and photography purposes. Some of them do not even work because the Iranians did not provide us with their accessories," the PMA official told MEE.
"We have our own team that manufactures drones, in addition to the aircraft that we import under official contracts from Iran and China. But these are, of course, for reconnaissance purposes."
Though these imported drones are designed for reconnaissance purposes, many are being modified to perform broader combat missions, armed factions commanders and Iraqi military officers told MEE.
Following interviews with army officers, federal police, members of the air force, paramilitary commanders, politicians and security officials, MEE has ascertained that two main types of drones are used by the armed factions. These are bought or assembled in Iraq and were not seen in the Camp Ashraf parade.
The first type are engine-propelled drones originally designed for aerial camera shots, but now turned into combat aircraft. The second are gliders - “usually very simple and or primitive” - according to an air force commander.
The cinematography drones modified to perform combat missions are the Phantom 3, Phantom 4, Inspire 1 and Inspire 2
"Some of the cinematography drones are designed to carry cameras weighing 15-26 kilograms. These can be modified to replace the camera with a missile or an explosive object of the same weight or less,” a commander of an Iranian-backed armed faction said.
These types of aircraft are available and cheap. In local markets, they don’t exceed $1,500-$2000. They fly at low altitudes, and do not emit much sound or heat, so are not easily detected.
At these kind of prices, they are easily expendable, military officers and commanders said.
The simpler, locally produced drones are manufactured using fibreglass and engines that are easily available in Iraq. They can be snapped up for around $700-$1,000 and carry explosive devices that weigh up to 2kg, sources said.
Iraqi army and air force officers said building primitive drones is relatively straightforward, and all regular and irregular forces in the country are able to put them together. The biggest challenge, they said, is having tight control of the aircraft while increasing the weight of the payload: essentially making sure the drones are deadly, accurate and have reach.
"Because of this, most of the attacks that were carried out in Iraq using drones were suicide bombers," a PMA commander told MEE.
“The last attack on Erbil [in July] was carried out by four suicide glider drones.”
A new weapon
Iraq’s skies were largely absent of drones after the Islamic State group (IS) was defeated in December 2017. Then, two years later, unidentified drones began targeting weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed factions.
Adel Abdul-Mahdi, prime minister at the time, said investigations indicated that Israel was behind these attacks.
At this point, the armed factions’ commanders realised their own arsenal was severely lacking in such tools, one told MEE.
“The drone was one of the most important technologies that the Iranians provided us with throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017, during our battles against IS,” the commander said.
'The drone was one of the most important technologies that the Iranians provided us with throughout 2015, 2016 and 2017, during our battles against IS' - Armed faction commander
"It was one of the weapons that secured us intelligence superiority in dozens of battles against IS at the time. We even became one of the most important feeders of intelligence to the army and federal police units that were fighting alongside us on the same fronts."
But Tehran maintained a tight control over the drones’ use. The Iranian supply of some weapons and technology was not available all the time to all armed factions, even those closely associated with them, as it was “always calculated and conditional equipment”, a prominent Shia politician close to Iran told MEE.
The locally available alternatives were nowhere near the sophistication that the Iraqi armed groups aspired to. So they began to think about how to transform lightweight drones from tools for gathering information and carrying out limited-scale operations into "tools that can resolve the battle in favour of this or that party”, the politician said.
In 2015, some commanders realised the solution could come from a legacy left by Saddam Hussein, who spent vast amounts of money on the military industrial sectors during the 80s and 90s.
The Military Industrialisation Authority that Hussein created during the Iran-Iraq war contracted hundreds of scientists, researchers and experts, who were specialised in developing various types of weapons.
Their successes were notable, but the authority was dissolved in 2003 when the US invaded, and its staff were either laid off, killed or pursued as members of Saddam’s regime. Suddenly, the armed groups realised their expertise was there for the taking.
"They were in front of us all the time. Dozens of experts in the electricity of missiles, their manufacture, aircraft maintenance, ammunition and armour modification,” a prominent commander of an armed faction told MEE.
“Daesh [IS] had previously attracted some of them and benefited from them. They were persecuted and displaced because of their ties to the previous regime, and they wanted nothing more than protection and a financial resource that would secure a decent life for their families,” he added.
"We contacted them and gave them what they needed. In return, they started working with us. In fact, they have achieved many successes in the areas of armour development and the manufacture of missiles and drones."
Kataeb Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the most powerful Iranian-backed armed groups, in addition to al-Abbass Combat Division, a paramilitary linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme Shia religious authority in Iraq, are the most prominent factions that attracted experts and engineers of the former Military Industrialisation Authority.
They provided them with budgets and equipment to manufacture and develop weapons, including drones, commanders told MEE.
Kataeb Hezbollah, which uses Iranian and Lebanese experts, in addition to Iraqi expertise, has made the most progress in weapons and drone development, followed by al-Abbass Combat Division, military officers and Shia politicians said.
"Kataeb Hezbollah owns a well-developed military industry," a PMA official told MEE.
“They started working on this issue early and contacted Iraqi engineers and researchers who were working with Hussein Kamel and Saddam Hussein, and made them attractive offers.”
Most were unemployed when the armed faction approached them.
"The expertise they have is great and has been employed in the manufacture of some weapons and the installation, assembly and development of other weapons," said the official.
It appears that Al-Abbas Combat Division may be the only paramilitary not linked to Iran that has successfully developed armed drones, faction leaders and military officers said.
“We worked on developing some military industries with the approval and knowledge of the prime minister. Our work is not secret,” an al-Abbas Combat Division commander told MEE.
"We succeeded in developing and manufacturing some types of weapons, including drones, but our production is still for reconnaissance purposes, and we do not rule out that we will manufacture combat models soon."
According to the commander, one of the Iranian-backed factions sought partnership with al-Abbas Combat Division to develop a joint production line for drones, but the paramilitary rejected the offer.
"They [the faction] sent a technical team to see our manufacturing workshops for the production of drones, but we refused,” he recalled.
"We are ready to cooperate with any military or non-military institution, but it should be governmental.”
In developing their own military industries, armed factions are attempting to replicate those of Iran, China and the US, modifying weapons to suit their particular requirements, experts on Iraqi military affairs and army officers told MEE.
Drones are no exception to this policy.
"They [the armed factions] have not yet passed the stage of cloning the cheap models available in the market, in addition to the models that Iran provided them as a privilege granted to its allies, but this does not prevent their superiority in this field [drones]," an Iraqi military researcher specialising in combating terrorism and Iraqi armed groups told MEE.
“For example, if they seek to launch attacks using the drones that they manufacture locally in large numbers and simultaneously, they will inflict catastrophic losses.”
The researcher noted that the factions instead avoid inflicting significant losses when they launch attacks on US forces.
"They [the leaders of the armed factions] are consistent in following the gradual tactic in the type of attacks and keeping the resulting damage within the controlled limits. Limited damage means a limited reaction.”
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi only attended the parade at Camp Ashraf on the condition that the drones that have caused his government and the US such headaches were absent from the display.
Yet the factions nonetheless marched around the facility with Iranian-made aircraft, choosing to disregard the premier’s wishes.
It is notable, however, that the drones they showed off were the Iranian ones, and not the most sophisticated locally produced ones.
The parade’s purpose went beyond highlighting the attacks on US forces, Iraqi officials, officers and leaders of armed factions said.
'All the information available to us indicates that a number of armed factions actually possess drones to launch large-scale attacks inside and outside Iraq' - senior Iraqi official
"Demonstrating any military or non-military technology means revealing the identity of its manufacturer and the capabilities of its owner. Involving Iranian-made drones in that parade was aimed at drawing attention to them, away from the reality of the arsenal owned by the factions or the PMA, which have been made locally,” a senior Iraqi official close to Kadhimi told MEE. “They succeeded.”
"All the information available to us indicates that a number of armed factions actually possess drones to launch large-scale attacks inside and outside Iraq, but they have not decided to do so far,” he added.
When asked if this was indeed the case, a prominent leader of an armed faction told MEE: "There is currently no interest in launching major attacks against American forces or others, whether using drones or missiles. We have the ability to launch major attacks, but there is no decision in this direction currently.
"The Americans know perfectly well the reality of the capabilities we have, and we do not need to prove anything to them or anyone else."