While Western nations establish “Space Force” commands for their military, Iran has been more practical and realistic. In 2017 Iran established a “Drone Division” in its IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) to handle UAV development, production, distribution and training. An IRGC colonel, a veteran in the UAV field, was appointed to run the Drone Division. Colonel Akbar Karimloo was even allowed to give media interviews about his operation and its accomplishments. Unlike much else with the IRGC and the Iranian military in general, Karimloo had some recent and very real accomplishments to discuss. Not all of them, some of these operations were merely implied because they were officially denied. One of these was the successful use of over twenty armed drones in late 2019 to attack Saudi oil production facilities. Iran attributed this to Shia rebels in Yemen that have substantial, but unofficial, Iran backing. This enables Iran to deny responsibility for the 2019 attack because that would have been an act of war and had some very real and very destructive repercussions for Iran. Instead Iran claimed that the attack was carried out by the Yemeni Shia rebels.
The Saudis were able to collect fragments of the several UAVs involved and reconstruct them. It was obvious that most of these UAVs did not have to range to travel from Yemen to northeast Saudi Arabia. The only other launch area was in nearby Iran. Most of the UAVs involved had been around for a while and were known to be reliable and made in Iran. There are a lot of UAVs developed and manufactured in Iran because UAVs are basically low tech devices using widely available manufacturing techniques and components. UAVs are not high-tech vehicles but assembling those common components correctly can be difficult. To get around that Iran has got a large collection of foreign UAVs that have crashed or been shot down in Iran, or nations that Iran has control over (Syria, Iraq, Yemen and parts of Yemen.) Iran is also a very active buyer in the black market for weapons wreckage. Islamic terrorist and rebel groups worldwide know about this black market and go after this wreckage before the owners can recover or completely destroy it. Israeli and American stuff is particularly valuable. Such wreckage has kept hundreds of skilled Iranians employed over the decades as they pick apart the wreckage to determine what the system contained and how it was put together. This usually results in an accurate appearing mockup and, less frequently, a working copy that can be put to use.
For decades Iran has regularly announced new weapons that were designed and produced in Iran. Over the last decade a growing proportion of these announcements involve UAVs. For example back in 2011 Iran revealed a UAV described as a cruise missile with a 200 kilometer range. It was several years before this new UAV was actually available to use. If you go back and look at the many Iranian announcements of newly developed, high tech, weapons, all you find is a photo op for a prototype. Production versions of these weapons rarely shows up right away, if ever. It’s all feel-good propaganda for the religious dictatorship that runs Iran, and its supporters.
But Iran has managed to develop some locally made weapons since the 1980s despite a growing list of sanctions making it difficult to legally import UAV components. As a result Iran likes to recycle older, all the way back to the 1950s military tech. For example, in 2010 Iran announced that it had developed an armed UAV, the Karar (or Karrar) with a range of 1,000 kilometers. Pictures of this new weapon showed what appeared to be a copy of 1950s era American cruise missile, or target drone. These, in turn, were based on a similar weapon, the German V-1 "buzz bomb" that was used extensively in World War II to bomb London. The Iranian Karar had the benefit of more efficient jet engines, more effective flight control hardware and software, and GPS navigation. Karar was not a wonder weapon, but the Iranians are depending on a clueless international mass media, and their own citizens, to believe it is. The Karar effort was not wasted because it was proof that Iran has teams of scientists, engineers and technicians working on UAV tech for a long time. Although touted as an armed cruise missile, Karar has been most often used as a target drone for testing air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. Target drones were designed for that and that keeps target drones rather more expensive than actual cruise missiles. So while Iran touts Karar as a cruise missile, Iran also found that Karar was one its few UAVs that could perform well as a target drone.
In the last few years Iran has announced many similar weapons, many of them originally conceived in the 1950s. There was, for example, a UAV with a range of 2,000 kilometers. This was announced a decade ago and is now said to be in service as the Fotros. This design is based on several successful Israeli UAV models. These UAVs use simpler, slower and cheaper propeller-driven tech. While the Israeli UAV designs are simple tech, putting all those components together so that you have a capable and reliable UAV is difficult. The Americans managed to emulate the older Israeli designs to produce Predator and Reaper. A decade late China began copying Predator and Reaper and in the last five years Chinese UAVs have dominated the export market. No one gives that manufacturing knowledge away and Iran has had to figure it out. They apparently did that with Fotros, which first flew in 2013 but was not reliable enough for actual service until 2020.
One tech that makes long-range UAVS so useful still eludes Iran. This is satellite control capability, which most American UAVs have. With satellites based control operators can watch what UAVs do in real-time and make critical decisions about where to go and whether to use weapons. The Iranian long-range UAVs use GPS type guidance and are preprogrammed for a specific mission, like take photos and return or carry explosives on a one-way mission. For longer range UAV operations Iran has learned how to use some UAVs as airborne relays. In addition the IRGC can use ground-bases relay stations in areas it controls. In this way operators back in Iran can control some of these long-range operations.
For Iran the primary target for their long-range weapons has been Israel and the United States. American troops operating near Iran have learned to deal with the growing number of Iranian UAVs, often with help from Israel which has a lot more practical experience with Iranian recon and attack UAVs. These low-tech and inexpensive systems are not wonder weapons but they can be a threat if you do not develop ways to deal with them. Israel and the Americans have, Saudi Arabia, until late 2019, had downplayed the threat. No more and this is another reason why the Saudis are getting so chummy with Israel.