Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ababil UAV


Acronyms and Abbreviations
Executive Summary

- Development 
- Technical Assessment 
- Use 
- Development 
- Technical Assessment 
- Specifications 
- Variants
- Use 
- Development 
- Technical Assessment 
- Use 
- Recognition Features 
Other 'Ababils' 
Appendix: Documented Airframes / Serials 
Footnotes / Works-Cited

HESA's booth at the 2012 Kish Airshow

Acronyms and Abbreviations

Executive Summary:

  • Production & Development 
    • Developed and produced by HESA. This is in contrast to most Iranian UAVs, which are developed by the Qods Company. Both Qods and HESA are subsidiaries of the MODAFL-owned Aviation Industries Organization.
    •  Total production reportedly ~370 by 2006, with a production rate of ~70/year.
  • Technical Characteristics and Variants
    • All variants are classified as tactical UAVs with a range of 100+ km, a ceiling of ~4,000 m, and an endurance of up to several hours. 
    • Ababil-1 (AB1): Disposable attack drone built during 80s. Assumed to have been phased out of service. 
    • Ababil-2 (AB2): Reusable target-drone with rudimentary surveillance capabilities. Can be used as disposable strike munition. Developed during the 90s, it is characterized by its delta-wing and canard configuration. Up to two hour endurance. 
    • Ababil-3 (AB3): Larger, more capable, and longer ranged surveillance variant developed during the 00s. Similar appearance to, and suspected development from, South Africa's Seeker. 
  • Use in Iran
    • AB2: Widespread use as a target-drone through the present. Surveillance use suspected, but undocumented in practice. Ongoing replacement by the AB3 possible. 
    • AB3: Increasing use in Iran by IRGC and IRIAF from 2010 onward, particularly in maritime environments. 
  • Use Outside Iran
    • AB2: Occasional use by Hezbollah through mid-2000s. May be found elsewhere (e.g. Gaza).
    • AB3: Widespread foreign use; documented rarely in Sudanese government use in late-00s, and frequently in the hands of (pro-)government forces in the Syrian civil-war 2012-present. Possible use by (pro-)government forces in Iraq 2014-present.

Ababil-1 (AB1) 

The first variant of the Ababil family was developed by the IEI's mechanical-industries department in the mid-80s. In 1986, the design was transferred to HESA for mass production.1

Technical Assessment:
Design details, or even the AB1's basic configuration, are unknown. Unlike its contemporaries, such as the early Mohajers, the AB1 was designed as a disposable precision-guided munition with a 40 kg warhead.

It is unknown whether or not the AB1 was employed during the war, let alone the details of its tactical employment. The most plausible explanation is that it was employed as a short-range precision munition against Iraqi defenses. It is suspected that a direct hit would create enough overpressure to destroy field-expedient and reinforced fortifications. Against personnel and other soft targets, it would have been less effective due to a lack of fragmentation.


Ababil-2 (AB2)

In 1991, HESA embarked on a redesign of the Ababil based on new requirements issued by the the Armed Forces for a reusable UAV. The new design entered production in 1992.2 In 1999, the AB2 was documented publicly for the first time in the UAE's IDEX '99 arms exhibition, where it was offered for export.3 Today, it is marketed by HESA for military surveillance, communication-relay, and civil use.

Technical Assessment
Each of the AB2-variants share the following characteristics:
- Cylindrical fuselage
- Cropped-delta wing with ailerons to control roll
- Canards with elevators to control pitch
- Pneumatic or rocket-assisted takeoff / parachute recovery

WAE-342, aka MDS-342 (Meggitt Brochure)
All variants are powered by the 25 hp WAE-342 twin-cylinder piston engine fitted with a pusher prop. Produced by the UK's Meggitt Defense Systems, this model is widely used in other UAVs. In Iran, it is also found on the Saeqeh target drone. It is assessed with low confidence that this engine has been produced since 2010 by the Qom-based MADO Company under the name “MD-275”.4 Although HESA initially advertised the optional installation of the more powerful AR-731 rotary engine (aka the P-73), this has not been documented.5

Range and endurance are primarily limited by the AB2's small 16 liter fuel tank. According to HESA, its endurance is 1 ¼-2 hours and its operational radius is 100 km (with no loiter time).6 7 At this range, the issue of BLOS control is unlikely to be a major issue as HESA states that the maximum range of LOS control is 120 km.

The Ababil can be fitted as needed with electronic subsystems to assist in flight control.8 These include data links for real time telemetry and video transfer, automated controls that remove the need for active pilot control, GPS/INS-cued waypoint navigation, and pre-programmed mission profiles. These features reduce pilot workload, allowing the operators to focus on their mission rather than keeping the UAV airborne. It also means that it can be programed to fly beyond-the-line-of-sight (BLOS). In order to support the data links, two stubby antenna are typically fitted, one each at the front and back of the fuselage.

A handful of sub-variants exist, but there is little consensus over their designations or their characteristics. One of the more detailed descriptions comes from Iran's Mashregh News.9 This agency is reportedly linked to the IRGC, and often publishes articles with a military focus, indicating that their claims are credible.10 However, many of their articles also contain open-source analysis and speculation, making their overall credibility difficult to assess. Other descriptions of specific sub-variants are similarly unsourced, and whose credibility is even harder to assess. 11

Three sub-variants of the AB2 can be confidently identified: a target drone, a surveillance model, and a variant fitted with twin-tails. The first and second share a basic airframe, and it is a reasonable assumption that they are identical apart from the payload. A fourth variant, fitted with an explosive payload, is less well documented.  

Aerial Target:
This frequently documented variant is used for air-defense training, and can be recognized by the lack of a camera. It is typically fitted with a single whip antenna on the nose for receiving flight controls.

Reported payloads include miss-distance-indicators (used for gunnery training), IR beacons (used with MANPADS), and radar reflectors (used with radar-cued systems).  
JATO prep for IRIN gunnery training, Blow of Zolfqar exercise, 2006 (FNA)

Employed for tactical surveillance, this variant is characterized by a) an electro-optical payload, and b) additional flight control equipment described above. Compared to similar surveillance UAVs, both in and out of Iran, the Ababil has only the most rudimentary capabilities, and is hampered by a low endurance and basic payload.

Two payload configurations have been documented. The first is fitted in a conventional gimbal below the fuselage, while the other is fitted in the fuselage's nose, much like the seeker on a TV-guided missile.12 Both configurations are limited to daylight TV cameras due to weight and size limits.

The third variant is characterized by the use of two vertical stabilizers. Although structurally different from the two variants listed above, it can be used in either role when fitted with the respective payloads.

Mashregh News reports that the tail configuration allows for an increase in speed and range due to aerodynamics and antenna location. This cannot be confirmed and may be unlikely given that documented examples show near-identical antenna configurations. They also report that it is built from composites (e.g. fiberglass), which would give it a lower weight, and a lower RCS than its aluminum counterparts. 13

One example seen on parade in Tehran, was designated the “Ababil-CH” and used as a target drone. Another example, used by Hezbollah, was fitted with the nose-mounted camera and a non-standard engine. At least one of Hezbollah's examples has been shown fitted with a non-standard engine.

Disposable Strike Munition:
Little is known about this version, which has only been documented indirectly in conjunction with Hezbollah.

It reportedly carries a 30-50 kg warhead, which is consistent with the AB1's payload described above.14 15 It is unknown whether or not a camera and data-link are fitted, which would allow it to be used for precision-strike. Given a total payload capacity of 40 kg, this would only be feasible with the smaller warhead. A larger payload would be limited by the accuracy of its GPS/INS-pathfinding, and preclude midcourse corrections.

Although this variant is typically associated with the twin-tail airframe, it is a reasonable assumption that its payload can be fitted to the single-tail airframe as well.

Length: 2.8 m
Wingspan: 3.25 m
Weight, Empty: ~30 kg
Weight: Payload: 40 kg
Weight, MTOW: 83 kg
Speed, Cruise: 250-305 km/h*
Ceiling: ~3,000+ m
Endurance: 1 ¼ – 2 hr

* Different sources report different speeds, both for 'maximum' and 'cruise'. When the AB2 was first unveiled in 1999 with the AR-731 engine, it's maximum speed was quoted at between 340-470 km/h (although the latter was described as its cruise speed). In the early-00s, its cruise speed was listed as 305 km/h with the WAE-342 on HESA's website. However, in the most current MODAFL export catalog, its maximum speed is listed as 250 km/h.

Mohammed Rasoollallah exercises, December 2014
In Iran, the AB2 has frequently been documented in use as a target drone by both the IRGC and the Army. The surveillance and twin-tailed examples have only been seen on parade and in HESA booths at trade shows, suggesting that they may not be operationally deployed

Around 2006, 369 Ababils had been reportedly built in total.16 Out of this total, 68 had been built in 2006, of which HESA had originally planned to export 13; 71 had been built the year before, 20 of which were exported.17 18 Although these numbers may include the AB1 or AB3 (which HESA began to acquire around this time), it is assumed the majority correspond refers to the AB2. Of the total number, an unknown quantity were target drones, many of which would have been destroyed in routine service.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah operates the twin-tail variant known locally as the 'Mirsad-1', where it is fitted with surveillance or explosive payloads. They are used strategically for messaging, and gathering intelligence. There are no known instances of tactical surveillance use. In the strike role it may be used tactical or strategically.

The Mirsad/AB2's twin-tails just visible in 2004 flight (al-Manar/NBC)
The first documented case occurred in November 2004 when an Ababil overflew the coastal town of Nahariya 10 km south of the Israel-Lebanon border, spending between five and 20 minutes loitering over the city before returning to Lebanon.19 20 Afterwards, Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hezbollah, gave a speech where he identified the UAV as a Mirsad-1, and claimed that it could carry a 40-50 kg warhead to strike various strategic targets.21 Nasrallah's speech, and the filmed flight indicates that Hezbollah intentionally used it for its messaging potential.

In April 2005, a surveillance Mirsad flew nearly 30 km south of the border before returning to Lebanon, spending a total of 18 minutes over Israel. Although IAF jets were scrambled, they failed to intercept it.22

Prior to the 2006 33-Day War, the IDF estimated that Hezbollah was in possession of 12 Ababils.23 Others estimated that the number could have been as high as 24-30.24 Both estimates are likely to be no more than educated guesses, but are generally consistent with self-reported production. During the war, at least three were launched.25 The first was shot down by the IAF on August 7 off the coast of Haifa, about 30 km south of the border. Its remains were recovered and photographed. The second was shot down on August 13 about nine km south of the border, near Kibbutz Cabri. This example was reportedly packed with a 30 kg explosive payload. The third was launched the shortly afterward on the same day, but crashed inside Lebanon near the city of Tyre.

No AB2s have documented in use over Syria from 2012 to the present, possibly suggesting that they have been supplanted – in the surveillance role at least – by the latest generation of Ababils. In 08/2012, insurgents captured a government workshop in Aleppo and a handful of rudimentary UAVs that were distinct from, but similar to, a number of Iranian designs including the AB2. Moreover, technical manuals with Khomenei's picture on the cover were also recovered, suggesting that these examples were being built with Iranian assistance.26

In the Gaza Strip, a UAV physically similar to the AB2 was documented in November 2012 when an Israeli surveillance flight captured its taxi test in Khan Yunis.27 The taxi-test indicates that this model had been fitted with conventional landing gear for takeoff and recovery.

Ababil-3 (AB3)

The latest member of the Ababil family is the AB3. Strikingly similar to the South-African Seeker, the AB3 is a far more capable surveillance platform; it can remain airborne longer, and carry a more sophisticated payload. It is increasingly deployed, both in Iran and abroad, for tactical surveillance.
AB3 at Kish Airshow, 2014 (IRNA)

Details of the AB3s development are unknown, but it is a reasonable assumption that it was reverse-engineered from the Kentron/Denel Seeker.

One possible explanation is that Denel supplied Iran with an unknown number around 2005-2006, which were then either locally assembled, reverse-engineered, or simply re-badged. This is based off a lawsuit filed by a Turkish company in 2012 that alleges MTN, a South-African telecom giant, bribed Tehran with promises of arms sales, including the Seeker, in order to secure a lucrative contract inside Iran.28 However, the filing also described how MTN failed to deliver on these promises over the following years – by which point the AB3 had already been documented. Additionally, one Denel official told Reuters that although they had proposed selling Iran certain UAV-related technologies, the deal had been blocked by the South African government.29

Nonetheless, this possibility should not be dismissed. First, the descriptions of Iranian frustration with MTN's failures focus on attack helicopters, not the other products. Second, Denel's explanation that their ostensibly legal discussions with Iran never amounted to anything lose credibility given parallel – and vehement – denials of ever having any contact with Iran.30

It is assessed with high confidence that specific characteristics of the AB3 indicate it was developed from Seekers fielded during the early-90s.31 32 These include vertical stabilizers with a vertical leading-edges, the absence of flaps on the inner wing's trailing-edge, and the use of Limbach engines. However, certain inconsistencies means that it can only be assessed with moderate confidence that the AB3 is most closely related to the Seeker-2D. This uncertainty might be explained by the fact that the AB3 is locally produced rather than a direct export, or by the somewhat opaque development of the Seeker itself.

The AB3 ostensibly entered production by 2006.33 This short production timeline casts further doubt on, but does not rule out, the MTN connection described above. It was first sighted in 2008 over Sudan, but it was not seen in Iran until 2010. Since 2012, it has been regularly documented in Iran and abroad.

Technical Assessment:
The Seeker origin gives the AB3 a significant step up over earlier Ababil generations. A more powerful engine and a larger fuselage allows it to carry more fuel, fly higher, and carry a wider range of surveillance payloads.

"MD 550" on display, 2014 (
The AB3 is powered by the 50 hp L-550E four-cylinder piston engine fitted with a pusher prop. This engine is also used on Seekers developed during the 90s, and on some of Iran's Mohajer-4s. As late as 2009, engines were illegally procured from Limbach, their German manufacturer, using intermediaries.34 Qom-based MADO now claims to be producing them domestically under the name “MD-550”.35

At least one Seeker variant pairs this same engine with a 64 l (standard) or 79 l (extended range) fuel tank, which gives it a 10 hour endurance. However, this number likely refers to a model which utilizes fuel stores in the wings, a model that postdates the one Iran's AB3 most closely resembles. This would explain the apparent disparity between the 4 hour endurance provided by Mashregh News, and numbers associated with the Seeker.36

Ground control station, 2010 (PressTV)
However, the AB3 is more likely than the AB2 to be limited in range by its LOS control. Although it can fly beyond its nominal 100+ km range, it cannot be actively controlled while doing so. For BLOS control, the the AB3 appears to be fitted with much the same guidance and control capabilities as the AB2, although it's unknown if the actual systems themselves are the same.37

The AB3 can be fitted with up to three different payloads: a) a gimbaled EO-system for surveillance, b) a fixed downward-facing still camera for aerial surveying, and c) a fixed oblique camera in the nose for navigation and takeoff/landing. This contrasts to the AB2's single daylight camera.

The gimbaled system is used for real time surveillance and includes a daylight camera, thermal imager, and laser range finder. The exact model and its specifications are unknown, but appears comparable to the top of the line system offered for export by MODAFL-subsidiary Isfahan Optical Industries (IOI).

In Iran, the AB3 has been used by the IRGC's Aerospace Force since at least 2010, and by the IRIAF since at least 2013. It was first documented in the IRGC-ASF's Great Prophet 5 exercises in 04/2010. At the same time, Iranian media announced the intended mass production of an unspecified UAV for the IRGC-ASF, which suggests an order had been placed. It was again seen during the IRGC-ASF's Great Prophet 7 exercises in 07/2012. Then, in 12/2013, an AB3 was shown taking off from the IRIAF's airbase at Bandar-e Abbas, where it was participating in their Velayat-4 exercise. Shortly thereafter, in 02/2014, another AB3 was photographed at an open house held at the IRIAF's airbase at Konarak.
IRIAF AB3, Velayat-4, 2013 (IRNA)

The very first AB3 was documented, not in Iran, but in use by Sudanese government in 05/2008. In discussions with UN peacekeeping forces, the local commander confirmed that 3-5 airframes were operating out of the al-Fashir airport in western Sudan.38 39 Associated infrastructure, including a GCS and at least one hanger, were documented in handheld imagery provided to the UN, and in open-source overhead imagery. Witnesses reported sightings in at least two other west-Sudan airports.

In Sudanese service, AB3s – known locally as the Zagil – were used by Khartoum for security operations over South Sudan, before and after their 2011 independence. They were employed for surveillance, and precision targeting. In the latter role, they would take advantage of low airspeed and high endurance to pinpoint targets for higher-flying bombers.40 Foreshadowing the same tactic used only a few years later in Syria, many of these 'bombers', were in fact cargo planes fitted with improvised barrel bombs that would be pushed out the rear hatch.

At least two examples have been shot down by anti-government forces, the first in 08/2008, and the second in 04/2012. The second example carried a badge indicating that it had been manufactured by HESA in 2006. Both examples carried a range non-Iranian components. The first example carried a UK video recorder, and the second carried electrical connectors made by the French company “Souriau FR”, and Irish carburettors. The Souriau components are of particular note since this company was referenced in Wikileak's cables, when Washington tried to advise Berlin of attempts by an Iranian front company to procure components for their UAV program.41
AB3 downed over Sudan in 2012 (Sat Sentinel Project)

It is in Syria, however, that the AB3 has been the most prolific. For detailed documentation of their use through 01/2014, see a report by author at OSIMINT, titled: “UAVs over Syria”.42 Since then, their use has shown no signs of abating.

Examples that have been shot down and recovered by anti-government fights show that they carry both gimbaled sensors for real-time surveillance, and fixed aerial survey cameras. The former would be used for spotting targets and cuing artillery or airstrikes by fixed or rotary-wing aviation. The survey cameras would be used to create up-to-date maps distributed to ground forces during attacks. The use of such maps has been documented widely, but cannot be conclusively linked to the AB3. In all of these roles, the unmanned, low-and-slow-flying AB3 offers a marked advantage over more expensive and less capable manned aircraft. In particular, its thermal imaging payload is unique among the government's stock of aging Soviet hardware.

It is unclear who is operating the AB3s over Syria. The most likely candidates include the IRGC themselves, the Syrian Air Force, or Hezbollah. Similarly, it is unknown which airports they operate out of.

In Iraq, the AB3 may be in use by pro-government forces, but this has yet to be confirmed.43

Other 'Ababils' 

Beyond the AB1, 2, and 3 described above, there are a handful of projects that may or may not be tangentially related to this family.

Sub-scale aircraft that superficially resemble the AB2 are sometimes seen in HESA booths at trade shows (see first photo from Kish 2012). It is suspected that these are student projects, which are indirectly affiliated with HESA.44

In 2009, an article by UAS Research indicated that there were two more Ababil variants in development.45 The first was a hand-launched version, and the second was a jet-powered version named the “Hadaf-1”, fitted with the Touloue-4 engine also used on Iran's longer-ranged ASCMs. No details about the hand-launched version was provided, and there has been no indication since then to indicate its existence.

It is confidently assessed that the 'Ababil Jet' – also known as the Hadaf-1 – is a reference to what is now known as the Karrar, which was publicly unveiled in 2010. The name 'Hadaf', which means 'target', suggests that it was intended as a replacement for Iran's US-supplied MQM-107 target drones, which is consistent with the Karrar's documented employment thusfar. The project was first documented in 2002 when HESA's vice-president noted that the company was already marketing an unnamed jet-powered craft in the same class as the MQM-107 and the Karrar. 46 The VP's article was accompanied by a picture from the HESA labs showing a jet-powered mockup that was nearly identical to the Karrar's final design. A model of this design was also shown to Ali Shamkhani when he was still Minister of Defense, around 2004.

Appendix: Documented Serials
(to be updated)
AB3, Iran
2-2-S012 (?)

AB3, Sudan:
3-1-R031 (Downed in action, aka Zagil, built 2006)

AB3, Iran:
3-1-R023 (Early development example, suspected)
3-2-R050 (IRGC Exercise, 2010)
X-X-R124 (Display during Rouhani's 08/2014 visit to defense show)
3-2-R126 (Display during Nigerian government visit)
3-2-R155 (Display, Kish Airshow, 2014)
6-2307 (IRIAF Exercise, 2013)

AB3, Syria:
3-2-RXXXX (05/23/13)
3-2-R-0105 (06/12/13)
3-2-R-010X (10/08/13)
X-X-R-1003 (12/19/13)
X-X-R-2004 (?) (10/02/13)

Footnotes / Works Cited
1) Iran's Ababil … [unclear]. Mashregh News. 10/11/11 
2) ibid Mashregh News, 10/11/11
3) Iran Tests Unmanned Air Vehicle. Flight Global. 04/28/99
4) Self Sufficiency in the Production of UAV Motors / Iranian Researchers Successfully Built UAV Motors. ISNA. 07/27/2010.
5) HESA product advertisement. Website now defunct, but entry reproduced by the ACIG Forums 02/2004.
6) HESA product advertisement. Website now defunct, but entry reproduced by the ACIG Forums 02/2004.
7) Ababil 2 UAV System. MINDEX.
8) ibid Mashregh News, 10/11/11
9) ibid Mashregh News, 10/11/11
10) The specifics of its links to the IRGC are unknown. For an example of such a claim, see link.
11) Ababil (Swallow) Unmanned Air Vehicle. Global Security.
12) One exception to this is an example paraded in Tehran in 09/2008, which featured the sensor gimbal above the fuselage. One explanation is that the payload module was accidentally installed upside down for the parade.
13) This cannot be confirmed, but a handful of images show the single-tailed Ababils assembled with riveted panels, which is typically associated with aluminum rather than composite construction, which can be bonded together with less mechanical fasteners.
14) Hezbollah Drone Threatens Israel. NBC Nightly News. 04/12/05
15) Hezbollah drone brought down over Galilee held 30 kg of explosives. Haaretz. 08/14/06.
16) Unidentified defense-industry show open to the public. Data was presented on a poster, which was photographed and uploaded to and
17) ibid defense-industry poster.
18) HESA to Enhance Nation's Fleet by 71 More Birds. Mehr News. 01/23/2006. Original article inaccessible, but article reproduced on ACIG Forums, 01/2006.
19) Air force: Hezbollah drone flew over Israel for five minutes. Haaretz. 11/09/04
20) ibid NBC Nightly News, 2005
21) ibid NBC Nightly News, 2005
22) Air Operations in Israel's War Against Hezbollah. Benjamin s. Lambeth. RAND. 2011. p.131
23) ibid Lambeth, 2011
24) Preliminary “Lessons” of the Israeli-Hezbollah War. Anthony Cordesman. CSIS. 08/17/06. p.5
25) ibid Haaretz, 08/14/06
26) Syrian regime's drone workshop with Saeqeh UAVs (and evidence of Iranian support) captured by the rebels in Aleppo. The Aviationist. 08/12/12
27) Hamas Test Running a UAV in Khan Yunis, Gaza. Idfnadesk. Youtube. 11/16/12
28) Case 1:12-cv-00479-RBW. Document 1. Filed 03/28/12. p.50
29) MTN and Iran 'No Normal Country'. Steve Stecklo w and David Dolan. Reuters Special Report. 06/25/12.
30) Private correspondence between author and Denel, 2011
31) 10 Squadron, AFB Pochefstroom - Seeker UAV. SAAF Forum.
32) Seeker 1. Unofficial Website of the South African Air Force.
33) Based on DOMs on an example recovered in Sudan in 2012.
34) Germany tries Iranians charged with smuggling drone engines as jet ski parts. Reuters. 06/16/14.
35) Imagery from trade show in October 2014 and elsewhere shows these engines offered for export, and in various states of assembly.
36) Iran's Newest Ababil Ready to Attack … [Unclear]. Mashregh News. 06/30/14
37) Ababil 3 UAV System. MiNDEX
38) Security Council Committee report, S/2009/562. Link
39) Security Council Committee report, S/2008/647 Link
40) Sudan Armed Forces Implicated in Video Captured by Their Own Drone. Jonathan Hutson. Satellite Sentinel Project. 04/10/1
41) UAE-Based Front Company for Iranian Procurement Entity Seeks French-Origin Connectors from German Firm(s). 01/09/09. Wikileaks.
42) UAVs Over Syria. OSIMINT. 01/08/2014.
43) Iran Secretly Sending Drones and Supplies Into Iraq, U.S. Officials Say. NYT. 06/25/14
44) HESA hosts a festival, possibly yearly, for student designs and RC-flight enthusiasts at their facility near Isfahan. Pictures from the event include the wheeled 'Ababil' in question.
45) 2009/2010 UAS Yearbook. 7th Ed. Blyenburgh & Co, 2009 46) Iran Joins the Aircraft Industry. Iran International. 10/01/02

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