The Iranian Army has conducted a large-scale UAV exercise during which it launched an air-to-air Azarakhsh (Thunderbolt) missile from a combat drone, amid Tehran’s growing tensions with Washington. 

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Hundreds of drones belonging to the Army, Navy, and Air Force took part in the drills held in the country’s northern province of Semnan.

Rear-Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, the Army deputy chief for operations, said the drill also focused on using drones to constantly monitor border lines, reported Tehran Times.

“At this stage of the exercise, a number of Army drones successfully carried out reconnaissance operations against fixed and mobile targets along land borders,” Mousavi explained.

“Today, the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran is able to strongly respond to any enemy aggression and target positions within a range of 2,000 kilometers using a variety of long-range combat drones,” the Army official added.

During the exercises, a variety of drones conducted live-fire missions which included ground strikes against fortifications using 500-pound Mk 82 bombs, air-to-surface Almas missile, and most interestingly, the Azarakhsh missile to hit an airborne target.

While the details of the Azarakhsh missile are not yet precisely known, it was said to be a weapon for helicopters and ground-based launchers, however, there was no suggestion of it to be adapted for drones.

Iran is one of the largest drone operators in the world and has reverse-engineered many American drones including the Predator-B and RQ-170 Sentinel.

However, the quality and sophistication of these drones have always been questioned; nevertheless, it provides its military with a much cheaper option to conduct regular surveillance and small-scale strike duties instead of investing more into fighter jets- which cost higher and have lesser availability rates.

The Azarakhsh missile was fired from a Karrar drone, which was originally designed as a target drone, which itself is a derivative of the American MQM-107 target UAV. A target drone is used as a dummy airborne target for training and testing of surface-to-air and air-to-air munitions.

By adopting the Karrar drone as a missile-armed interceptor, Iran could have a cheap alternative to interceptor jets and try to join a select group of countries that are adopting drones with air-to-air capabilities. According to Thomas Newdick’s writing for The Drive, the Azarakhsh missile is very likely based on the American AIM-9 sidewinder. 

The exact nature of the Azarakhsh missile remains something of a mystery, he wrote. “The weapon appears to be at least a derivative of the US-made AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, thousands of which were delivered to Iran before the revolution that ousted the Shah in 1979.”

The US recently revoked the earlier decision to withdraw USS Nimitz from Middle Easter, stating that the aircraft carrier would now remain deployed in the US Central Command area of operations. The move comes amid fears of a retaliatory attack by Iran over General Soleimani’s assassination.

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