An Iranian Coup

22 August 2010


The announcement today of the production of an Iranian-built drone UCAV bomber, the Karrar, can be accounted nothing less than a coup for Iran, politically, diplomatically, and militarily. The fact that this announcement also came on Sunday, when then Western media (but not the Muslim world’s media) is at the lull point of the news cycle, was also telling. I checked the Strategic Forecasting website and Jane’s and neither of them yet had a story up about the new Iranian Karrar. Somebody needs to tell these people that the world doesn’t come to a stop because they want to spend the weekend at home with their families and children.

The rapid advance and wide dissemination of high technology has made it possible for even a nation-state like Iran, which is under many sanctions in the attempt to restrict its access to high technology weaponry, to build its own high technology weapons systems. But Iran is a relatively large nation-state with an educated population and an industrial infrastructure, so that such things are possible. So far the details are thin and sketchy (as is to be expected), but there was a story on Arab that cited a range of 1,000 km, a speed of 900 KPH (subsonic — mach 1 is 1,190 KPH), and the ability to carry two 250-pound bombs or a 450-pound guided bomb.

What is involved in building a UCAV bomber? A jet airframe, computerized control systems, and some form of communication between the UCAV and its ground control station are sufficient. In other words, it doesn’t take much. And it doesn’t look like much of a plane either; in the picture on the Arab News website it doesn’t look much larger than a cruise missile. But small size can be a great advantage if it reduces the radar cross section and therefore enjoys greater stealth. Of the three elements mentioned above, the most problematic element would be the communication between the UCAV and the ground; jet airframes and computerized control systems are mature and robust technologies. Radio communications is also a mature technology, but it is the weakest link in the chain of essential systems.

The administration of Mahmoud Ahmadi-nejad can claim a diplomatic coup with today's development.

An obvious counter-measure to a remotely operated UCAV is for an enemy to seize control from its intended operators. This can be done with advanced electronic equipment, but counter-measures to these counter-measures are equally obvious: encrypted command and communications. Here is a field in which Iran’s technological limits are much less obvious than in other fields of endeavor. In Signals Intelligence and American Culture I formulated the general principle that people do what they can with what they have. Just as even the poorest nation-states can be successful in espionage, so too even the poorest nation-states can be successful in cryptography. In a nation-state of 67 million persons there will inevitably be a few geniuses in mathematics, and it would only take a minor breakthrough to have a superior system of encryption for command and control.

A subsonic drone of this size could probably be taken out pretty easily with advanced accurate and supersonic weapons systems possessed by both the US and Russia, and distributed to their allies. But, as with Iran’s small boat swarms in the Persian Gulf, if the point is to produce large numbers and to swamp and overwhelm defensive systems, this the Karrar can do through numbers even if it cannot do the same through beating its adversaries in the high technology game.

The calculus here is the same that I discussed in Sinking a Carrier: Proof of Concept: if your counter-measures are 99 percent effective, of a hundred units fielded only one will get through — but sometimes one is enough. A efficacy of 99 percent is probably unrealistic for most counter-measures, but even if it can be met, or if it can be bettered, the advantage is still with the greater numbers, especially if the greater numbers only have to put on a good show in order to score a victory in the media and in popular opinion.

Iran learned some very tough lessons in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, which claimed as many as a million lives on both sides. This kind of loss changes the way that a nation-state goes to war, and it is then to be expected that Iran would be sensitive to the lives of its soldiers. With the Kassar UCAV Iran can enjoy the same benefits for its personnel as more technologically advanced nation-states, not only sparing their lives but allowing those who operate the UCAVs to become as adept and sophisticated as children playing video games. It is to be expected that whatever advantages that Iran can exploit while sheltering its human capital from any repeat of the disaster of the Iran-Iraq war are opportunities that it will not forgo.

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