WASHINGTON — The White House disclosure last week that Russia is seeking hundreds of armed and unarmed surveillance drones from Iran to use in the war in Ukraine reflects Moscow’s need to both fill a critical battlefield gap and find a long-term supplier of a crucial combat technology, U.S. intelligence, military and independent analysts say.
Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, offered few details about the intelligence assessment he revealed to reporters last Monday, including whether the shipments had started. But other U.S. officials said Iran was preparing to provide as many as 300 remotely piloted aircraft and would start training Russian troops on how to use them as early as this month.
Russia has exhausted most of its precision-guided weapons as well as many of the drones it has used to help long-range artillery strike targets in its monthslong bombardment of Ukraine. Meantime, the first batches of American truck-mounted, multiple-rocket launchers have destroyed more than two dozen Russian ammunition depots, air defense sites and command posts, according to two U.S. officials, making Moscow’s need to counter the new, advanced Western arms more urgent.
Enter Iran, a leading drone developer for decades.
Iran has supplied drone technology to Hezbollah in Lebanon; to Houthi rebels in Yemen attacking Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; and to Shiite militias in Iraq, which have carried out strikes against Iraqi and American troops.
“Russia is turning to an ally that has flown drones in complex environments in large numbers,” said Samuel Bendett, a specialist on Russian drones and other weapons at CNA, a research and analysis organization in Arlington, Va. “While the Russians still have drones, they don’t have all the types they need.”
Russia’s deal with Iran underscores the ever-growing importance of drones to modern warfare, not just in insurgencies or counterterrorism operations but also in classic conventional-style conflicts. In a contested battlefield like Ukraine where dueling artillery barrages are the deciding factors if an offensive fails or succeeds, drones play a pivotal role.
A Russian delegation visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice in the last five weeks — June 8 and July 5 — to examine drones that can be armed, Mr. Sullivan said in a statement released by the White House and reported earlier by CNN. The Russians reviewed Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones, according to satellite imagery the White House provided with the statement to The New York Times.
Ukraine had its own drone fleet before the war started and has also used hundreds supplied by the United States and other NATO countries, like Turkey, to destroy hundreds of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers, military officials said.
But analysts said Russian counterdrone and electronic warfare equipment, including jamming devices, have blunted the early success of the American and Turkish drones.
A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute, a research organization in London, concluded that Ukraine needed more electronic warfare equipment of its own to combat advanced Russian systems. Ukrainian surveillance drones, which help target Russian troops, survive only about a week before Russian defenses force them to crash or shoot them down, the report said.
Ukraine and its supporters in Congress have pleaded for the United States and its allies to provide more and bigger drones that can carry more weapons and stay aloft longer, like the Gray Eagle aircraft. U.S. officials have shelved those proposals for now, fearing that the Gray Eagles would be easy targets for Russia’s air defenses and could also be viewed as escalatory by President Vladimir V. Putin.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
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Russia had its own formidable arsenal of drones entering the war, but the potential delivery of hundreds of armed and unarmed Iranian drones would help the Kremlin replenish a fleet that has suffered steep losses during the nearly five-month campaign.
Russia lost dozens of reconnaissance drones to Ukrainian air defenses and to mistaken attacks and jamming in the early phase of the conflict. Surveillance drones are essential to the grinding ground battle that the war has settled into. But Russia’s defense industry has struggled to build capable armed drones in large quantities and other remotely piloted aircraft that can fly high over targets for hours at a time, analysts said.
Since invading Ukraine in February, the Russian military has honed its use of drones in what has become primarily an artillery war. The small unmanned aircraft have been a boon for quickly targeting Ukrainian forces and transmitting coordinates back to Russia’s longer-range weapons, including howitzers and mortars.
“They are surely improving their skills,” a Ukrainian Army major named Kostyantyn, who declined to provide his last name for security reasons, said this spring about the Russian military’s use of drones.
Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas, the swath of territory in the east of the country that has become the focus of Russia’s military campaign, have said their artillery is almost immediately targeted by Russian counterfire, which they partially attribute to the use of drones.
Russian drones — primarily the Orlan-10, a small fixed-wing aircraft, along with small, commercially available quadcopters — have drastically changed how Ukrainian forces move around the battlefield. They park their vehicles under trees or other cover and must conceal artillery pieces to avoid being detected by overhead surveillance.
But even with proper camouflage, pro-Russian media channels frequently post videos of Ukrainian equipment being targeted and destroyed as a drone loiters above.
In recent weeks, however, Mr. Bendett and military analysts said, Russia’s edge in the drone wars has diminished. About 50 Orlan-10s have been brought down by Ukrainian or accidental Russian fire or jamming, analysts said.
As a result, demand remains high for off-the-shelf consumer models and modified amateur drones resistant to jamming. Both sides are using crowdfunding campaigns to replace lost equipment, analysts said.
Russia and Iran have given muted responses since Mr. Sullivan’s disclosure.
The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, declined on Wednesday to say if Moscow had any plans to purchase Iranian drones. He said Mr. Putin was not planning to discuss the issue during his scheduled trip to Tehran this week.
Western and even some Russian analysts say the Kremlin has seen the value of drones in various conflicts around the world for years, including in Syria. And yet Russia was not ready for the intense need in Ukraine.
Yuri Borisov, who until last week served as Russia’s deputy prime minister, said in an interview with a Russian news organization last month that the Russian military should have deployed drones in combat zones more aggressively.
“I think that we are belatedly engaged in the serious introduction of unmanned vehicles — this is the objective,” Mr. Borisov told the organization, RBC.
The United States has not seen indications that Iran has transferred any drones to Russia, a senior military official said in a Pentagon briefing on Friday. But U.S. officials and analysts said Moscow’s apparent deal with Iran was a major role reversal for one of the largest arms purveyors on the planet.
“Russia is used to selling military gear to nations like Iran, not the other way around,” said P.W. Singer, a strategist at New America in Washington who has written extensively about drones.
Iran has issued carefully worded comments about its military cooperation with Russia that some Iranian media outlets have interpreted as a confirmation of a drone deal.
On Tuesday, Nasser Kanani, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters that “military cooperation between Iran and the Russian Federation on new technology predates Ukraine’s war and has not had a significant change in recent times.”
Exactly which types of drones Russia may seek from Iran remains unclear, although the satellite imagery released by the White House offers strong clues.
In recent years, Iran and its proxies have launched a number of attacks on American troops in Iraq and Syria with armed drones that U.S. officials believe were designed and produced domestically. On Oct. 20, Iran launched five so-called suicide drones at the American base at Al Tanf in southern Syria, though only two exploded on impact as intended.
U.S. military leaders believed that attacks with similar drones earlier last year were carried out in Iraq by Iranian-backed militias.
In addition to drones, Iran has an increasingly sophisticated arsenal of long-range missiles it could potentially provide to Russia, such as those used in an attack on U.S. bases in Iraq two years ago that resulted in numerous American injuries.
The Pentagon has not invested heavily in suicide drones, which can be small enough to fit into a backpack, but it has purchased a short-range version called a Switchblade.
Mr. Biden authorized the transfer of 100 Switchblade drones from Pentagon stockpiles to Ukraine in March, and 120 drones called Phoenix Ghost that officials said were similar to the Switchblade in April. In May, the Pentagon announced that it had committed 700 Switchblade drones to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration.
Farnaz Fassihi contributed reporting from New York, and Natalia Yermak from Lviv, Ukraine.