Wednesday, December 28, 2011

77th Mechanized Infantry Division

The 77th mechanized infantry division (MID) is a regular army unit based in the Khorasan province in north-eastern Iran. At the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war the 77th was comprised of one armored brigade and two mechanized brigades; at the time they were armed with M-47 tanks and BTR-50 APCs. At this time the 77th maintained one infantry battalion and one armored company in Khuzestan. (1) While a complete history of their operations during the war remains unknown, the 77th is known to have participated in the following operations, Fath ol-Mobin (March 1982)(2), Ramadan (July 1982)(3), Badr (March 1985)(4), and Karbala-6 (Early 1987)(5).

Today, little is known about their current operational status or capability. They still maintain three brigades; the first is in Mashhad, the second in Quchan, and the third in Torbat Heydariyeh. (6)

Anthony Cordesman asserts that Iranian mechanized infantry divisions like the 77th are composed of: (7)
- one armored brigade
- three mechanized infantry brigades
- one reconnaissance battalion
- one SPA battalion
- one towed artillery battalion
- one engineer battalion
- one supply battalion
- one transport battalion
- one army aviation contingent
- one air defense contingent
Even assuming that this description would represent a 100% strength that may not translate to actual strength, the fact that Iran's divisions overwhelmingly use three brigades rather then four calls into the veracity of this claim. Regardless, it still might offer some indication into what the 77th looks like at a general level, especially when cross-refernced with visible features in available imagery. For instance, most mechanized units throughout the world maintain independent supply, transport, air defense, and engineering battalions at a divisional level. Presence of these independent units are difficult to independently confirm, but some evidence for them does exist. [EDIT: A commenter has pointed out that this chart needs one point of clarification; the army aviation contingent is not under the direct command of the 77th MID, but belongs to a different, independent command structure within the IRIAA)

Although nominally a mechanized unit, the 77th is more closely comparable to a conventional motorized infantry division with a ratio of one lightly armored brigade, to two motorized-infantry brigades, especially by the standards of today where mechanization is standard in any infantry unit. On top of being understrengthed, the armored battalion is also equipped with the obsolete M-47M tank, though there are some signs of it being replaced with the T-72. Mechanized infantry battalions resemble those found in the rest of the country, with a mix of BMP/Boragh AFVs, M-113 APCs, and BTR-60 APCs. Motorized infantry meanwhile have been seen with the usual mix of motorcycles and ATVs, Jeeps, pickup-trucks and 5-ton trucks. Self-propelled artillery is entirely lacking, with artillery support being provided by towed battalions of towed guns like the D-30 and M-46. 107 mm Type-63 rockets are also deployed at an unknown level. Air defense is provided in part by Zu-23-2s and MANPADSs; these may be augmented by HAWK SAMs and/or 35 mm AAA. A commando battalion, identified in the past by their duck-hunter pattern uniform, is likely equipped for airborne assault operations using the Havinarooz detachment. Weapons deployed as a lower level includes recoilless rifles, RPGs, M-47 ATGMs, TOW ATGMs, mortars, G-3 rifles and possibly MANPADSs. Like the rest of the Artesh, the 77th is transitioning toward desert-pattern safariflage uniforms.

Armor of the 77th MID

Motorized Infantry

Artillery support

Light infantry

1st Brigade - Mashhad
The brigade HQ is located south-west of the city-center buttressed against a mountain range bordering the city. It is adjacent to a number of other military facilities belonging to various entities.These facilities are mostly found across the highway and occupy the north-facing slope of the mountains.

The central compound serves as the divisional headquarters for the 77th MID and is the largest of the division's bases. The reason for this, in addition to the fact that the 1st brigade is armored and consequently larger, is that any independent battalions attached to the division (such as supply, or air defense) are likely based here; this possibility is supported by the relatively large footprint of the facilities compared to other brigades, and the presence of multiple well-delineated sub-compounds. 

Overview (GE)

In general, the northern portion of the compound tends to be occupied by living quarters and administrative buildings as indicated by the low, barracks-style buildings. The southern-half tends to be dominated by motor-pools, repair/overhaul shops and garages. One of the more visually interesting features of the base is the presence of scattered hardened shelters which likely hold munitions. Dispersing them throughout the compound is likely aimed at preventing the catastrophic detonation of a massive arms collection in the heart of a large city; the danger of which was illustrated to some degree by recent (as of the time of this writing) detonations in China and Cyprus.

1st Brigade (GE)

Dominating the compound is the central motor pool and adjacent parade yard. In this motor pool is the brigades armored contingent, including a tank battalion made up of M-47Ms. While in most imagery, only a handful are visible at a given time, imagery from July 2006 shows 15+ tanks arrayed into three companies at 50-60% strength (five-six tanks each). The T-72s which have been paraded in Mashhad are nowhere to be seen. Immediately north of this are several BMP-type IFVs; using historical imagery, the most seen at any one time is ~five which matches the typical deployment rate for mixed light-armor companies incorporating a 50/50 mix of M-113 APCs and BMP-type IFVs.(8) North of this is approximately another company's worth of M-113 APCs. While they are not visible on recent imagery, parade photographs confirm the identity of a company of BTR-60PBs in early imagery from 2004 and 2006. On parade, soldiers in mechanized infantry units typically wear red berets.

Some of the brigade's artillery can also be observed in two locations within the compound. Occupying a parade-ground in the north-west portion of the compound is a battery (six pieces) of towed artillery, probably the M-46 judging by its split-trail carriage and length (~11 m). Historical imagery from 2004 actually shows a number of M-46 and D-20 guns in towed configuration and and connected to trucks. The self-contained nature of this sub-compound possibly suggests that the immediate vicinity houses the brigade's artillery battalion(s). In the south-east corner of the compound, several artillery pieces including M-46s and D-30s are visible from time-to-time in a courtyard surrounded by long buildings roofed in corrugated metal; possibly garages or workshops.

By far, the most common feature in the compound is the wide variety of trucks and other light, motorized vehicles. These include Safir-type Jeeps, Toyota Land-Cruiser pickup trucks as well as the larger five-ton trucks, probably Mercedes 1924s or 2624s; semi-trailer tractors are also common.

Opposite this compound, on the the other side of the highway, are a large collection of firing ranges, the Samen police academy(9), and a storage depot with hardened shelters and revetments. Most notably though, there is also a relatively new compound with large, blue-roofed warehouses. Adjacent to these buildings are a large number of widely varied earthworks which might indicate it's some sort of combat-engineering training area. It's unknown if this area is affiliated with the army, or belongs to the IRGC. The lettering on top of the roof of the warehouse reads "Martyrs for Peace". To the north and east of the brigade HQ are two military hospitals. (10)

"Martyrs for peace" (GE)

The 77th's army aviation contingent - the 5th assault and support group -  is also based in Mashhad at TAB-14. (11) The Havinarooz airbase is located north-east of the main airstrip. Scramble on the Web indicates that this contingent is comprised of two airborne assault squadrons equipped with Bell 212s, one attack squadron equipped with AH-1s, and a recon squadron with Bell 206s. This composition is easily verified on recent satellite imagery from October 2010; 10 212s occupy the northernmost pads while the  six AH-1s are intermingled with six 206s on the southernmost pads. Adjacent to these pads is a large drive-through garage; the bases repair and overhaul facility. In the southern portion of the compound are several hardened shelters; likely the bases munitions storage. AAA emplacements dot the facility.

Army aviation base at TAB-14 (GE)

2nd Brigade - Quchan
This location is significantly smaller then the brigade in Mashhad, with little insight into its makeup visible from satellite imagery. Adjacent to the compound are a collection of firing ranges and about 2,000 m to the north is a storage depot with earthen revetments. A smattering of offices and administrative buildings can be found throughout the compound.

2nd Brigade (GE)

Running along the northern-most edge of the compound are a series of earthen berms surrounding a handful of hardened shelters and warehouses; this protection likely indicates munitions storage. In the middle of the compound are two different clusters of small buildings organized in rows and columns; because these buildings are surrounded by trees and only approachable via foot paths these are likely living facilities along the lines of barracks, kitchens, or classrooms.

South of these two clusters is a paved parade yard and a small training area with trenches, an obstacle course, and other minor features. Sometime between 2004 and 2010 a second training facility to the east of the parade yard, on the opposite side of the road, was bulldozed over.

The southern-most portion of the compound holds a good deal of garages, workshops and other metal-roofed buildings. Although no mechanization is visible, whatever armor this brigade does operate would be found inside these garages. A handful of large and small trucks are spread out throughout this area. At least one battalion of D-30 towed guns is visible in the open.

3rd Brigade - Torbat Heydariyeh
Like the 2nd brigade, the detachment located north of the city of Torbat Heydarieyeh is relatively small. Moreover, the only imagery is from 2003, though the quality is relatively good given the age.There is a second, suspicious compound 7.5 km to north-east which may be military related, but this cannot be confirmed for sure.  In the general vicinity of the compound are a series of firing ranges buttressed in between the compound and a small collection of hills to the east, and immediately north of the compound is a prison.

3rd Brigade (GE)

Within the compound itself, near the southern edge is a storage depot with a number of sheds surrounded by revetments. Following the road north to the parade ground, a mosque with its distinctive domed roof is visible on the right. Like Quchan, no visible mechanization is present; the motor pools on the western edge of the compound, as well as a smaller one on the east only contain the usual range of motorized transport ranging from jeeps to 5-ton trucks. Adjacent to the motor pool, and in the northern portion of the compound are exercise fields used for routine training. In the center of the compound can be found the parade yard and a small number of buildings which are, most likely at least, barracks and administrative buildings.

(1)I Persian Gulf War: Iraqi Invasion of Iran, September 1980. T. Cooper, F.Bishop. ACIG. 9/09/2003
(2)The Iran-Iraq War in the Air. T. Cooper, F.Bishop. 2003.
(3)I Persian Gulf War: Iraqi Invasion of Iran, September 1980.
(4)The Iran-Iraq War in the Air.
(6)Central Clubs Forum.
(7) Unfortunately I cannot find the original source where Cordesman claimed this. This information is sourced from the authors work on the "Open Source Intelligence Project", also available on this blog (here).
(8) This organization can also be observed more clearly in the 1st Brigade of the 88th AD in Zahedan.
(9) Wikimapia
(10) Wikimapia
(11) Scramble on the Web. Iranian ORBAT.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What can we expect from the Ir-140MP?

Iran's defence minister - BG Vahidi - recently made the announcement that the maritime patrol version of the Iran-140 (An-140 produced in Iran) has entered production and will be delivered to the armed forces "in the near future", this, according to Iran's PressTV.

As of Fall 2010 Iran's assembly plant had turned out nine Ir-140s with more rumoured to be on the way (1) While these are all suspected to be the basic transport/liaison variants, Iran has touted several different configurations for the aircraft over the years - including models outfitted for AWAC, personnel training, EW, geological survey, cargo/personnel transport, VIP transport, paratrooper deployment as well as, of course, maritime surveillance. (2)

HESA advertises that their aircraft can be used for: detecting targets both on and below the surface, search and rescue, countering smuggling, piracy and terrorism, protecting fisheries and other resources, pollution monitoring, maritime traffic policing. (3)

So assuming that a handful of these aircraft do enter service in the near future, how do they stack up against Iran's current maritime aircraft like the P-3? What about other MP aircraft from around the world? Fortunately, for once at least, there is official documentation that answers these very questions.

We know there is no single MP aircraft, but at least five different configurations offering varying capabilities ranging from crew training, to environmental protection, to sophisticated anti-submarine and surface surveillance. The five variants are the Ir-140-HMS-100, HMS-200, HMS-300, HMS-400, and HMS-500. In addition to the specific variants, HESA advertises several example layouts for roles such as fisheries protection or coastal patrol with altered equipment loads.

RDR-1600 (Quickstrike)
All of the variants can be assumed to have some common avionics. Mounted in the nose of the aircraft is a RDR-1600B weather/search and rescue radar which is made by the Australian company Quickstrike. The 1600B is a modern, fully digital X-band radar that is capable of being integrated with onboard navigation equipment as well as functioning as a terrain mapping radar. (4)

The aircraft is also outfitted with an identify-friend-or-foe (IFF) system, traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS), INS/GPS navigation, radar altimeter, distance measuring equipment (DME) and tactical air navigation (TACAN) system.

Early models show it equipped with both anti-ship missiles (AShM) as well as torpedoes. It is unknown if this capability was retained in later designs.

The HMS-100 is outfitted for search-and-rescue (SAR) as well as basic maritime patrol (MP). Two observer stations fitted with bubble windows are located on both sides of the fuselage directly behind the cockpit. Observation is accomplished primarily via the Mk. 1 eyeball or portable binoculars and cameras. Behind this area is a passenger compartment with seating for 34. Alternately, it can also be outfitted with 18 seats and a four-passenger VIP compartment. At the rear of the aircraft is a rack containing both smoke markers and illumination flares, both used during SAR missions. A "SAR kit" can also be deployed from the rear service door, which likely contains a standard survival raft. The customary small galley and lavatory can also be found at the rear of the aircraft.

While its modest configuration restricts it's potential value in a high-intensity environment, the HMS-100 can still function as a low-cost peace-time alternative to, or as a trainer for, more advanced variants.

The HMS-200 is a step up from the HMS-100 though is still intended as a basic SAR/MP aircraft. It features a FLIR/TV camera in a ball mount on the chin of the aircraft. An operators station, located behind the observers station, features a VRR (a glorified VCR) and a video datalink. Other then this, the aircraft is identical to the HMS-100 with a passenger compartment, galley, smoke markers, SAR kit and lavatory.

No details. Interior layout is identical to HMS-200.

The HMS-400 features dedicated sea surface surveillance (SuS) capability in addition to the more basic MP and SAR duty. In addition to the video equipment of the HMS-200, the HMS-400 features electronics support measures (ESM) and counter-measure dispensing systems (CMDS).

ESMs are crucial in gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT) and are tasked with intercepting and classifying the RF emissions that have become so common in today's battlefield. ESM enables target detection and identification (for instance, you would know an F/A-18 is broadcasting it's APG-73 radar 73 km away to the south-east) as well as being able to use the data to develop and exploit better forms of offensive EW such as ECM/ECCM. On the HMS-400, two recievers pods are visible, one on the forehead of the aircraft, directly above the cockpit, and one on the belly in front of the landing gear.

The ESMs are likely integrated with the aircraft's defensive suite which includes a radar warning receiver (RWR) which cues an audible warning as well as the CMDS which fires chaff and/or flares to distract a homing missile. Optional warning systems includes as an IR-based missile warning receiver (MWR) and a laser warning receiver (LWR). Optional countermeasures include a towable decoy. Most interestingly though, another optional countermeasure is the ATIRJ which is a subcomponent of the US's AN/ALQ-212 system which is meant to defend against MANPADS-type missiles. It works by jamming the seeker of a closing IR-guided missile with lasers mounted on rotating heads. The system dates from the 1990s so it's certainly not inconcievable that Iran got their hands on some; there is also the possibility that HESA is using stock-imagery which, of course, is very common in Iranian media as anyone who has read an article about Iran's Saeqeh fighter jet that is accompanied by a picture of an Israeli F-16 knows.

In the interior of the aircraft, an additional operators station linked with the ESM/CM is located next to the first on the starboard side  of the aircraft. Four VIP seats is all that remains for passenger space and the main avionics array (MAR) has replaced the galley which now shares a spot with the smoke marker rack. The lavatory and SAR kit have remained put.

The HMS-500 is the model that most everybody thinks of when they think of the maritime patrol version of the Ir-140. Representations of it are always show in a blue and white camouflage pattern similar to what's worn by the IRIN's P-3s. Compared to the HMS-400, the HMS-500 is also capable of sub-surface surveillance (SSS) and pollution control (PC).

The stinger-like magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) jutting out of the tailfin gives this version it's distinctive appearance. This device does what its name suggests which is detect anomalies in the earth's magnetic field which submarines generate. This is also the reason for its stinger-like appearance; it needs to be completely clear of any interfering metals.

On the belly of the aircraft, in between the ESM pod and the FLIR turret is another blister pod which houses the microwave radiometer (MWR). MWRs are used to passive radiation coming off the ocean which in turn is used to detect and monitor oil spills - a logical problem within the Persian Gulf.

On the inside of the aircraft, a total of four operator consoles now line the starboard side in front of VIP seating. Behind the seating is an assembly which houses sonobuoys; sonobuoys are disposable, air-dropped sonar devices (both active and passive) used to detect submarines.

At the tail of the aircraft is the galley, MAR, lavatory and SAR kit.

How does it stack up?

Within Iranian service, there two, possibly three types of aircraft that the I4-140 is intended to replace: the P-3F Orion, the F-27-400M and possibly, modified versions of the C-130H.

The IRIN's primary long-range maritime surveillance aircraft is the P-3F which is reaching the end of its lifespan (as are all their US built aircraft). Currently 2-3 are operational at any given time and operate at an unknown level of readiness. On one hand, the decades of use may have taken their toll on both the airframe and the sub-systems, but on the other hand, Iran has overhauled and retrofitted them to some unknown degree. There have been no external additions that might give hints as to what these modifications entail. When they were originally delivered they were fitted with weather and surveillance radars as well as nose-mounted EO cameras giving the P-3 surface surveillance . Sonobouys and a stinger-mounted MAD meanwhile provide ASW capability. Iran's P-3Fs can be armed with lightweight Mk 46 torpedos, depth charges, or gravity bombs, but not AShMs. Overall, the P-3Fs are closely comparable in terms of capability to early P-3A/B variants.

Some of the IRIN's F-27-400Ms have been converted to basic maritime patrol duty and have even been reported to have been upgraded with avionics for this role. However, like the P-3Fs, no new external antenna or pods are visible that would give a clue as to the accuracy of this statement or not. At any rate, it is likely that the F-27 would be comparable to the HMS-100 in terms of mission role. Two-to-three aircraft are currently operational.

During the Iran-Iraq war, when the demand for maritime surveillance was at its highest and the readiness of the P-3s was the lowest, an unknown number of C-130Hs were converted for the maritime surveillance role. The exact nature of these modifications are unknown but may be similar in nature to the C-130H Ibex ELINT projects undertaken by the IIAF. It is unknown if any C-130s continue to serve in this role.

At the end of the day, the Ir-140MP is not a replacement for the P-3 on a 1-for-1 basis. On a purely mechanical basis, the fact that, empty, its a third the weight of a P-3 means that it's going to have a shorter range (almost a quarter), lower endurance and a lower internal volume available for mission-related subsystems. An aircraft with the range of the P-3 (or beyond!) would be perfectly suited for the IRIN's stated mission which is to project influence through the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea from the Horn of Africa to the tip of India. Recent operations like a continued presence in the Gulf of Aden and visits to countries like Syria and Sri Lanka emphasize the IRIN's shift towards a more expeditionary role. These ambitions however have remained hamstrung in many ways by the limited aerial support role of the IRIN. Surface ships like the Alvand frigate are lacking in terms of modern sensor fits. Meanwhile, only one-two submarines are available at any given time for patrol beyond the protection of the Gulf of Oman. So, by default, the responsibility of detecting and identifying potential targets falls to naval aviation as they are the only ones with the potential capability to cover such a large geographic area. Light aircraft like the Ir-140 or F-27 don't have the range to conduct patrols of any significant length beyond the Gulf of Oman.

At the end of the day, the Ir-140 is what it is, a light, turboprop aircraft, with capabilities to match. Within the context of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman it's range and capabilities are more then sufficient and are comparable to a number of other light patrol aircraft like the F-50, CN-235 or any of the Dassault Falcons. In fact, the aircraft's most important asset is the basic fact that they're new - zero flight hours, brand new engines and brand new airframes. Relying on older aircraft like the P-3 is dangerous because the remaining flying hours left have to be shepherded and carefully guarded with intensive maintenance and support, all of which translate into less missions flown. The impact of modern, sophisticated avionics suites like what should be presumed to exist on the Ir-140-HMS-500 should not be discounted either. Even a relatively inexpensive radar like the RDR-1600 used in the Ir-140-MP is able to produce a much more narrow beam in contrast to the APS-115 on the P-3F which in turn gives a much higher resolution, allowing the radar to be used for tasks like terrain mapping or SAR where the radar on a P-3 would be simply insufficient.

Works cited:
(1) Iran Ready to Mass-Produce Iran-140 Plane. Fars News. Oct. 23rd 2010.
(2) As per official HESA and MODLEX documentation
(3) HESA's IR-140 Information Page
(4) Quickstrike Website

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Zulfiqar-3 Turret

Sometimes the best information comes from the lest expected places. In this case, the first shots of the interior of the Zulfiqar-3 turret came not from a new, public expo or documentary, but from a poor quality, many-year old video that gave us the first images of the Mobarez. In fact, screenshots from the video are frequently seen around the web.

But upon closer examination, a turret belonging to the Zulfiqar-3 can also be observed undergoing some form of work. While it appears to be under construction, there does appear to be some form of camouflage already applied to the exterior which would only indicate a heavy overhaul (since paint schemes are applied at the end of the process, not half-way through.

Regardless, several key features confirm it's identity.

1) Lifting eyes - visible on the lower-right side of the structure
2) Turret ring - visible on top of the structure
3) Gun mount - visible through turret ring. Man in the tan-coat is pointing directly at it and the gun mantlet.
4) Geometry - The turret is turned upside-down and facing away from the camera. The camera is looking at the left-hand turret size with the turret front obscured and the bustle out of view.

Unfortunately, there's not a great deal of information one can discern from the video, thanks in part to the low quality. One thing you can tell however is that I was a but off with my estimate on the location of the turret ring - it's a bit further forward then  imagined. While one can see the interior wall of turret, I'm unable to translate this into a worthwhile estimate. However, it is worth noting that you can see the shadow from the turret bottom being cast into the interior wall.

Further Pictures:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

US-Built Tanks in Foreign Service - Iran

This piece is actually relatively old. I wrote it a fair bit ago for another website; however, seeing as how this summer has been relatively unproductive so far, I figured I'd share it here as well:

US-Built Tanks in Foreign Service - Iran

Imperial Iran
Imperial Iran, ruled since 1941 by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, emerged in the first days of the cold war as a Western-ally with larger regional ambitions than its military could then support. This, combined with the Eisenhower doctrine which encouraged direct assistance to nations in order to help sway them away from communism, led Iran to turn towards America to mechanize their Army.

Before this the Imperial Iranian Army (IIA) relied primarily on light infantry and pack animals to move their forces. Procurements following WWII included 15 M-4 Sherman tanks ordered in 1950 and 100 M-24 light tanks in 1953. These would be supplemented by an unknown number of M-36B1's purchased at an equally unknown time. The M-4s would later go on figure prominently in the 1953 coup against then-prime-minister Mohammad Mosaddeq (fig. 1). Despite these modest advances, the IIA still largely lacked mechanization.
Fig. 1: M-4s in front of the National Police HQ following the coup against Mossadeq (MSNBC/AP)

After 1953 Iran would grow closer to the United States and, considering both the Shah's ambitions and his growing oil revenue, it should have been no surprise that the newest generations of Patton tanks were on the top of the Shah's shopping list. This included 400 ex-US M-47s in 1957 and 260 M-48A1s in 1960. In fact, rapid mechanization of the IIA was of such importance to the Shah that all through 1964 US state department papers touched on the issue numerous times, saying in June: “We understand that the Shah's greatest area of concern at present is in the replacement of tanks.” and during a visit by the Shah to the US, Robert Komer of the National security council staff wrote to President Johnson that: “Though we've kept telling the Shah that his real problems are internal not external, and that reform is first on the agenda, he keeps reverting to the military toys he loves. We've convinced him there isn't much chance of Soviet attack, so now he's talking up an Arab threat as his excuse. His main interest just now is replacing his aging M-47 tanks. M-48A3s like the Israelis want would be cheaper and more than ample, but he wants our new M-60s.” Iran would later go on to order 460 brand-new M-60A1's, the first of which began arriving in March of 1965. The IIA also operated a number, thought to be around a hundred, of M-41 light tanks during the 1960's-1970's.

To support these tanks the IIA also attempted to maintain parallel infrastructure. In 1970 Bowen-McLaughlin-York Inc. built a production plant in the Khuzestan province in south-western Iran for the purpose of upgrading Iran's M-47s and M-48s. Once this plant was online, all M-47s were upgraded to the M-47M standard which was only used by Iran and it's neighbor, Pakistan. The upgrade involved replacing the assistant driver who sat in the bow next to the driver, with additional main-gun ammunition, as well as importing several features from the M-60A1 such as the fire-control elements and the AVDS-1790 diesel engine, the latter giving the rear of the tank a distinct ‘oversized’ look compared to early model M-47s. Iranian M-47's have both cylindrical and ‘T’ shaped muzzle breaks. The M-48A1's were meanwhile upgraded, to M-48A5 status which involved replacing the 90 mm gun with the 105 mm M68 from the M-60A1 as well as the associated fire-control elements. It is unclear as to when and in what order these tanks were upgraded.

Near the tail end of its lifespan, Imperial Iran began to heavily shift toward the UK for its armor needs, ordering 707 Chieftain MBTs in 1971, and 1000 Scorpion light tanks in 1976. They also provided funding for the “Shir 2” program which was intended for Iran and later evolved into the Challenger tank.

The Islamic Revolution
When the Islamic Revolution of 1979 expelled the monarchy and replaced it with a theocracy hostile toward the west, it was estimated that 240 M-47Ms, 160 M-48A5s and all of the M-60A1s remained in service, although many of the remaining early-model Pattons remained in storage. However, in the summer of 1980, with the war with Iraq still unforeseen, the newly overhauled Islamic Republic of Iran Army (IRIA) was suffering from all the ills of an army caught in revolution; purges, desertion and simple negligence had reduced the once mighty army to only around 50% fighting strength.

The War with Iraq
In September of 1980, on the eve of war with Iraq, the IRIA was still in poor shape, suffering from an acute lack of organization. When Iraqi tanks crossed the border on September 22nd, US-made tanks, along with Chieftains were some of the first sent to repulse the attack. Specifically, the 16th armored division based out of Qazvin, were equipped with three brigades of M-60A1 MBTs, while 1 brigade of the 77th mechanized infantry division, located near the border of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, were equipped with M-47M medium tank. Later, the 88th armored brigade, headquartered in the Sistan-Baluchistan province on the border with Pakistan, would be expanded to a full division and equipped with Patton tanks, though at the beginning of the war it was only equipped with Chieftains. The 37th armored brigade in Shiraz in south-eastern Iran was also equipped with Patton tanks, mostly M-60A1's, but with a number of M-47's as well. A number of M-36B1 and M-24 tanks were also deployed with the 151st infantry battalion under the 92nd armored division, though in a purely secondary capacity. The older tanks, around 80 in total, were positioned at border forts around the Khorramshahr area, sometimes buried right up to the turret in order to act as pillboxes. It is possible other forts along the border had the same type of set-up as well.
Fig. 2: M-47M. Note the enlarged engine compartment which carries the AVDS-1790 as well as the T-muzzle break and the sand bags being used as appliqué armor. (Unknown)

Unfortunately outside of Iran, the war, despite spanning 8 years, having a death-count in the millions, and with intervention from large portions of the world, remains relatively unknown. To make this worse, the few works in English that have been written about the war are often blatantly false! Furthermore, what is available from the Iranian side is almost exclusively from the IRGC perspective, which, while interesting, doesn't really touch on the performance of US-made armor which was operated by the regular army.

In the first years of the war, Iran's Pattons saw the most use of the entire war, often playing instrumental roles in counterattacks and defensive operations. For instance, the first major counterattack by the Iranians was the Battle for Dezful, alternately called Operation Nasr, was launched on January 5th 1981 by the 1st and 3rd brigades from the 16th armored division, equipped with M-60A1 tanks. The 16th armored division, supported by contingents from the 92nd armored division (based out of the south-western province of Khuzestan), spearheaded a push aimed at breaking the siege of Abadan near the border. Facing the Iranians were the 9th Iraqi armored division, 5th mechanized infantry division, and the 31st independent infantry brigade. But perhaps most importantly, unbeknownst to the Iranians, this force had been reinforced by the Iraqi 12th armored division which had been shifted from elsewhere in order to recover from previous fighting. Following promising progress on the first day of the operation when the 1st and 3rd brigade from the 16th made significant headway, they were soon beset on 3 sides by the numerically superior Iraqi armored divisions who made quick work of the two brigades. The 16th armored division was decimated by the counter-attack, losing upward of 100 M-60 and Chieftain tanks to enemy fire while being forced to abandon many more. Though it should be noted that initial Iraqi claims of capturing more then 214 tanks are probably false.
Fig. 3: M-36B1 originally captured by Iraq during the 1980s only to be recaptured by US forces in 2003. Talk about having an adventurous life! (Geoff Walden)

At any rate, information about Patton performance during the war is scare. However, on a whole, performance seems to have been a mixed bag. The M-60A1 was a favored tank by Iranian tank commanders who valued its high mobility compared to the Chieftain whose engine was notoriously underpowered and temperamental in the desert heat. However, the main flaw of the M-60A1, and in fact, most of the tanks used in the war, was their vulnerability to anti-armor weapons. Iran's solution to this was to increase the amount of infantry support for armor maneuvers. However, the shift to a light-infantry dominated force by Iran was also a function of sheer lack of any armor to field.

This brings us to one the most enduring myths of armored combat during the Iran-Iraq war – that neither side could effectively use armor for maneuvers. While Iran undoubtedly was hampered by its lack of a coherent command and control organization, competing factions and political purges, the first days of the war saw large contributions by armored forces.

However as the war progressed and Iran begin to lose more and more tanks without a way to replace them, armored formations became a rare sight. Iran's stock of US-built tanks were hit no less hard then their main MBT, the Chieftain. Retired M-47's and M-48A5's that had been sitting in storage were quickly entered into service. Iran also sent out their procurement agents across the world with orders to buy up spare parts and anything at all related to their stocks of M-47's, M-48's and M-60's. While it is unsubstantiated, it is rumored that Iran purchased 80 M-48A3's from Greece, another 80 M-48A3s Vietnam and possibly more from elsewhere.
Fig. 4: One of the few available pictures of an IRIAA M-48A5. (Saff Magazine)

Iran emerged from the Iran-Iraq war with a shell of a military, in addition to the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men, their economy had been crippled, and combined with international isolation, the farthest possible option for the IRIA was to completely overhaul their army with brand new armor. Despite a modest procurement of T-72M1 and T-72S tanks from ex-Soviet states, the IRIA remained largely dependent on its pre-revolutionary stock of Western armor.

Post-war reorganization saw the 16th armored division with Chieftains, while the M-60A1s are most likely assigned to the 81st armored division in Kermanshah, as well as with an unknown mechanized infantry division. Meanwhile, the 77th mechanized infantry division on the border with Afghanistan still use the M-47M. The 88th armored, now a full division, use M-47M and M-48A5 tanks, favoring the latter.
Fig. 5: M-60A1 on manoeuvre during the Tondar-5 wargames in 2004. (FNA)

Surprisingly, Iran’s Pattons aren’t the only US-built tanks that are still in service. A number of “Korean-War era vintage” tanks are rumored to be deployed on Persian Gulf islands. This could a number of tanks including the M-4, or even the M-47. One possible location, as indicated by Google Earth imagery, is on the south west tip of Abu Musa Island. The island is located approximately halfway between Iran and the UAE and is a source of dispute between the two countries. While this is undoubtedly a strange role for a tank, they could be intended to repulse an amphibious attack to reclaim the island.

The Future
Though Iran's Patton tanks are undoubtedly obsolete, even by regional standards, they will continue to serve in the IRIA if only because there are no other replacements; this is in turn is due to a stagnant domestic industry and a reluctance to seek foreign assistance.

Almost no information is available about the current status of either the M-47M or the M-48A5. One of the few pictures of the M-47M shows it equipped with a pitifully small number of Kontakt-1 ERA bricks (~10 along either fender) along with a commercial security camera mounted on the turret with a length of metal pipe. This ad hoc ‘upgrade’ is most likely a local modification.
Fig. 6: M-47M in Mashhad (Jamjam)

On a more promising note, Iran has developed an upgrade for their M-60A1s called the “Samsam” which was first seen during Armed Forces Day 2010. Observable features of the upgrade includes roughly 54 Kontakt-1 type ERA bricks on the turret sides, two banks of four smoke-dischargers on either side of the turret and the addition of an EFCS-3 fire control system (the gunners sight is visible directly in front of commander’s cupola). At the left-rear of the turret is a mast-mounted laser warning receiver paired with dazzler/jammers on either side of the gun mantlet.

A different variant was shown at Sacred Defense Week 2010 and Armed Forces Day 2011 that featured ERA twice as thick as the normal K-1. While the ERA placement varies with each parade, it’s often sloppy with large areas across the frontal arc uncovered.
Fig. 7: Samsam - note the ERA brick thickness (M-ATF)

It is very likely that the Samsam is a development of their older M-60 upgrade program offered for export. While it lacks the ERA bricks and laser-warning system of the Samsam, Iran’s Ministry of Defense Export Catalogue does offer some insight on what other features exist, but are not readily apparent to the naked eye.

Specifically, this includes the replacement of the driver’s M-24 IR periscope which necessitated an IR searchlight fitted above the main gun, with a new night-driving system, probably belonging to the 2nd generation passive “Shabaviz-1/2” series manufactured by the Iran Electronics Industry (IEI). The 105 mm main gun is gyroscopically stabilized in both axis and is attached to the EFCS-3 fire-control system mentioned above. This system, manufactured by Fotona in Slovenia during the 1990s, while not ultra-modern, is a generational leap compared to anything else in Iran’s inventory. Because of this, the system has found itself being used not just in M-60A1 upgrades, but also with T-54/55, T-72, and Chieftain MBTs. It is manufactured, without a license, by IEI under the name “KAT-72”; a result of Fotona cutting relations with Iran following international sanctions. The EFCS-3 features a digital ballistic computer, 2nd generation night-sights, and a laser range-finder.

Widespread adoption of these upgrades is desperately needed if Iran’s M-60s are to remain at all relevant in the years to come. The United States demonstrated that modern M-60A3s with new fire-control-systems, gun stabilization and ammunition could still keep up with early-generation M1s during Operation Desert Storm. Unfortunately for Iran it is more then likely that projects like the Samsam are limited to technology demonstrators or prototypes and have not yet been applied on a wide scale. However, since any image of IRIA armor is rare, let alone images of upgraded ones, definitive conclusions cannot be made one way or another.
Fig. 8: Iran's 105 mm APFSDS used with the M68 gun (IIPA)

The basic Patton design also serves as the basis for Iran’s indigenous tank design, the Zulfiqar. (see separate entry on this blog) The first incarnation, the Zulfiqar-1 is heavily based on the M-48A5, with the hull being almost a direct copy, the only difference being a thicker M-60A1 style glacis plate. Internally, the configuration is also similar, with many of the controls, including the turret traversing handle and backup manual ballistic data calculator taken directly from the M-48A5. The later Zulfiqar-2/3, though a radical departure from the first model, still can’t completely hide its heritage. The hull has been lengthened (with one additional road-wheel) and now features side-skirts, but is still fundamentally based on the Patton design.

Iran has also shown an affinity for the AVDS-1790 series engine which has been reported to have been upgraded to 1,000 hp and can be found in the Zulfiqar prototypes as well as possibly in the Mobarez upgrade program for Chieftain tanks.

Global Security
Military Photos Forums
Iran Defense Forum
ACIG Database
SIPRI Arms Database
Immortal: A Military History of Iran and It's Armed Forces
Shahyad - “Armor in the Imperial Iranian Army”
State Department Archive
Military History Magazine
Osprey Books
The AFV Database
Google Earth

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