Russia’s use of military drones in Ukraine has highlighted the ready availability of the low-cost weapons and their growing use in conflicts.

Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP) has expressed surprise that engines made by Rotax, its Austrian subsidiary, were reportedly found in Iranian-made drones shot down in Ukraine. The company’s logo has featured in photographs of drone wreckage.

BRP spokeswoman Biliana Necheva said in a statement November 4 that the company had not supplied engines to Iran since 2019 and that “none will be sold moving forward.” She suggested that Iran might have used counterfeit engines or stolen them.

After a Rotax engine was apparently found in a Mohajar-6 drone shot down by Ukrainian forces and displayed on CNN in October, BRP stated October 21 it had not given authorization to distributors to “supply military UAV manufacturers in Iran or Russia.

But United States-funded Radio Free Europe has reported that Mahtabal, Iranian distributor for Rotax engines, was advertising sales and a repairs service as recently as December 2020. RFE said one camera in the shot-down Mohajar-6 was produced by Hong Kong-based RunCam Technology, which has two authorized Iranian dealers. Another camera resembled a model produced by Sierra-Olympic Technologies, based in the US state of Oregon, or a cheaper Chinese version, while microchips featured the logos of the California-based Linear Technology Corporation.

An Iranian Shahed-136 drone used as suicide weapons by Russia against Ukrainian civilian targets

‘Countries with unclear usage’

While Rotax engines are used in snowmobiles, watercraft and civilian airlines, they also figure in the United States MQ-1 Predator drone, Israel’s Heron drones, and some Russian drones. Drone output has surged in the Middle East in recent years, with the main producers Israel and Turkey.

In 2020, it emerged that Rotax engines were being used in Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones being used by Azerbaijani forces against Armenia – which led the company to say it would stop exports of Rotax 912 engines to “countries with unclear usage.” The manufacturer has claimed Ukraine’s use of the Bayraktar would boost worldwide sales.

Iran has developed a program of drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), given it lacks an effective air force due to international sanctions. While Iranian officials and commanders have celebrated this as an achievement of domestic production, Iran has copied when advantageous.

Iran’s Shahed-129 drone, in production since 2013, has been widely reported to have a Rotax 914 engine. A decade ago, there were reports that had Iran copied aspects of a US drone it had shot down.

The engine of an Iranian drone shot down in Ukraine. October 6, 2022

Tehran has developed skills in obtaining technology when barred by sanctions. “Exporters will look at the request coming from the [United Arab Emirates] or another third country…when really the end user is in Iran,” Daniel Salisbury, a senior research fellow with the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, recently told RFE.

Cost-effective alternative

While Ukraine has in the current conflict used both Turkish and US drones, as well as making its own, Russian military commanders have generally been skeptical over the usefulness of drones.

Russia’s Forpost, a surveillance drone that is a licensed version of the Israeli IAI Searcher II, has been deployed in Ukraine, but Moscow has faced problems with its stealth drones. Ukraine has argued that Iranian drones are a cost-effective alternative to missiles while Kyiv has also used Tehran’s supply to lobby successfully for better US air defenses.

After conceding Saturday that it had supplied drones to Russia, albeit before the current phase of conflict and specifically for use in Ukraine, Iran continues to stress both its links with Moscow and desire for a negotiated peace.

After meeting with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Tehran Wednesday, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani called for deeper ties in energy, transport and banking. He said they had discussed resisting “western interference” in internal affairs and that Iran would back “any initiative that leads to a ceasefire.”

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