Last Week Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps reportedly made use of the 3rd Khordad surface to air missile system to shoot down a Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk surveillance drone operated by the U.S. Air Force – according to recent reports.
The Global Hawk is one of the most expensive military aircraft in the American inventory at over $220 million each, and is designed to retain a high degree of survivability. The drone was operating in ‘full stealth mode’ according to Iranian reports, and had turned off its identification equipment to survey Iranian territory undetected.
For years, Iran has been successful in smuggling drone parts in spite of international sanctions, and now its smuggling efforts have moved into counter-drone markets.
Export control cases have long since emerged in the United States, France and Germany where Iranian agents were caught smuggling drone parts.
According to nationalinterest.org, there is also the risk of Iran obtaining counter-drone technology through China who is said to pursue a “no-questions-asked” policy regarding the export of drones to the Middle East. In February 2018, the Centre for the Study of Drones in Bard College reported that China had eight counter-drone products on the market, the risk being that China-based procurement agents with profiteering intentions and a lax regulatory environment seek to sell such strategic goods to Iran. Take the case of Emily Liu, who sought to procure electronic components from the United States on behalf of Iran’s Shiraz Electronic Industries, which is responsible for producing radars, avionics and control systems—all relevant components for the production of UAVs and counter-UAVs.
Iran’s neighboring states are also looking to acquire counter-drone capabilities. Turkey has at least three known products on the market, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are looking to step in.
Due to their geographical proximity to Iran, these countries unwantedly risk operating as transhipment hubs and staging grounds for Iranian front companies and smuggling networks seeking to get their hands-on Western counter-drone technology.
Efforts should now focus on preventing Iran from enhancing these capabilities by countering its attempts to obtain Western counter-drone technology.
Due to the nature of counter-drone technology as developing technology, there’s a need for U.S firms and partners to strictly control it. So far, suggestions for legislative proposals on counter-drone tech have focused on placing authority in the hands of national-security and law-enforcement agencies to make use of counter-drone capabilities.
However, legislation will also need to cover exports to foreign nations, which includes classifying counter-drone exports as foreign military sales where the U.S. government acts as a go-between to the vendor and customer, rather than as direct commercial sales under which a company and another nation can negotiate directly.
In view of the spread of this technology worldwide, there is a need for stringent legislation followed by arrests and prosecutions of anyone trying to export this material without a license.
Otherwise, Iran and its regional proxies will likely be using Western counter-drone technology for interception purposes in the not-too-distant future.