An armed Iranian drone prepares for take-off during a military drill in a file photo. Image: Middle East Eye / Facebook

Iran’s drones are devastating the critical infrastructure of Ukraine. What is surprising is that, beyond the physical drone airframe and the explosive payload, Ukraine is being savaged by equipment originating from outside of Iran.

In fact, these drones are made of parts from the United States and the European Union, along with some from Japan and China. But most of the electronics are American. 

The United States has imposed sanctions on drone companies in Iran. Congress is considering legislation – for example, the “Stop Iranian Drones Act” (HR 6089). But both the proposed legislation and the US sanctions are unlikely to make any difference without a coherent policy aimed at blocking supplies to Iran.

US officials whisper to Congress that because the Iranian drones are made from easily available commercial parts there is nothing that can be done. But such claims simply are not true. Iran’s access to outside technology for its drones can be stopped but it will take smarts and leadership.

Consider the engine in the Iranian Quds Mohajer-6 drone now being used by the Russians in Ukraine. It’s powered by an Austrian company, Rotax, owned by US and Canadian firms.

The Mohajer-6 is an ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) platform that also can carry four precision strike missiles. One Mohajer shot down in Ukraine features a Rotax 914 engine that generates 115 horsepower. 

Mohajer-6 drones are being used to devastating effect in the Ukraine war. Photo: Wikipedia

Mohajer-6 is similar to Turkey’s now-famous Bayraktar TB-2 drone, which has a Rotax 912-IS engine generating around 100 horsepower. (The 914 is an updated version of the 912.)

Rotax, acquired by Bombardier in 1970, manufactures its engines, parts and related technology in Austria by Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP). In 2003, BRP was sold to Bain Capital (50%), the Bombardier Family (35%) and Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (15%). Bain Capital is based in Boston. One of Bain Capital’s co-founders is Senator Mitt Romney.

BRP’s line of Rotax engines is the most popular engine of its type in the world and is used in aviation, motorcycles and recreational vehicles. BRP has distributors around the world and a service center in Iran

In a statement about the Rotax engine found in the Mohajer-6, the company said that it “has not authorized and has not given any authorization to its distributors to supply military UAV manufacturers in Iran or Russia.”

The company statement did not mention whether it had sold engines to Iran for “civilian” use, but the fact that a repair center was set up in Iran suggests that a large number of Rotax engines have been sold there.

This is not the first time Rotax has been in the spotlight.  During the Nagorno-Karabakh war (started September 2020), the Turkish Bayraktar drone in combination with Israeli ISTAR and suicide drones (for example, Hermes, Harop) devastated Armenian military radars, ground forces and command centers. Rotax then suspended the delivery of engines to Turkey after coming under pressure from the Canadian government.

Canada had previously stopped the sale of military equipment to Turkey in 2019. But by 2020 the ban was apparently lifted. In any case, the ban did not prevent the export of Rotax engines from Austria and the export to Turkey of Wescam CMX-15D airborne targeting imaging systems made in Canada by a US company, L-3Harris Technologies.

Rotax engines are used in US and Israeli-made drones such as US General Atomics MQ-4 Predator (Rotax 914 F) and Israel Aerospace Heron drone (Rotax 914).

Given the ownership of BRP, shared between the US and Canada, it is unclear why the US and Canadian governments would have not apparently launched an investigation into the circumstances of the engine deliveries to Iran. After all, Iran is sanctioned by the US and EU.

The Rotax 914 engine used in Iran’s killer drones. Image: Company Website

Yet there is no evidence any such investigation has occurred. So far as is known, no Rotax company officials have been interviewed, no documents examined, nor is there even any agreement to cut off the delivery of spare parts and supplies for engines already sold to Iran.

Neither the US nor Canada has asked Rotax to shut down its repair center in Iran.  Moreover, the Italian distributor of Rotax products, Luciano Sorlini SPA, identified by investigators working for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, says it has never delivered engines to Iran. It is not known if the company was questioned by Italian authorities, but it is unlikely.

Stopping further sales of Rotax engines would force Iran to look elsewhere. If the US and the EU took action and warned Rotax and other engine makers, Iran would have significant problems manufacturing Mohajer and other drones that may use the engine.

There are probably four engines that could be fitted into the Mohajer. These are manufactured by UL Power in Belgium, D-Motor also in Belgium, Verner Motor in the Czech Republic and Jabiru in Australia.

Even if the Chinese came up with an engine to replace the Rotax, Beijing could likely be persuaded not to sell given Chinese concern about potential sanctions if they supply Russia or Iran in the Ukraine war.

Rotax is not the only path to squeezing Iran’s drone production. The suicide drone from Iran being used in Ukraine (probably with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) is the Shahed-136

Like the Mohajer, the Shahed-136 is cosmopolitan in origin. It uses a Chinese engine (Chinese-origin engines are also used in a number of other Iranian drones) and a main circuit board comprised primarily of US electronics.

Dealing with the Chinese engine is straightforward. The Shahed-136 engine appears to be the DLE-222CC four-cylinder gasoline engine, which is manufactured by Mile Hao Xiang Technology Co in the Mi Yang Industrial Park in southern Yunnan province. 

US authorities could easily let China know these engines are being used on Iranian drones delivered to Russia for the Ukraine war, of which some 3,500 have already been delivered. A joint US-EU demarche to China may be enough to cut off the supply of engines.

The Shahed drone’s circuit board also requires further investigation. While the locations of all components are clearly marked on the main circuit board, there are a couple of oddities. 

Although the board was produced in a modern factory, there is no serial number or other identification on the board, meaning that it was produced for a customer who asked that identifying information be omitted. 

Additionally, at least one of the integrated circuits on the board also has identifying information obliterated, perhaps because it was an export-controlled part.

An Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drone hits Kiev. Photo: J News / Screengrab

The electronics, integrated circuits, processors and a sophisticated connector on the board come from American companies or were produced abroad for them.

It is reasonable to judge given the lack of a named manufacturer, serial number or logo that the circuit board was manufactured outside of Iran. Iran is not shy about putting its name on the equipment it produces, so the obfuscation here is likely for the convenience of the overseas producer of the board. Furthermore, it is far easier to produce a specialized circuit board and pack it with components in a place where they are easily acquired.

There is a case to be made and investigated that the circuit board was produced either in the United States or elsewhere, as in Taiwan (which has a large industry producing computer motherboards) or another Asian country.

It may be possible to track this down, but it will take investigatory resources. It is, however, worth the effort considering the devastating impact Iran’s drones are having in the Ukraine war. 

If indeed Iran depends mostly on Western electronics and Western assembly and manufacturing, then it is possible to halt Iran’s drone program in its entirety. Thus the United States and others who don’t want to see Russia get weapons from outside have a unique opportunity to take down Iran’s drone industry without firing a shot.

Like the Iranians, the Russians are also relying on foreign technology and much of it is American. Their Orlan-10 drone series is stuffed with American integrated circuits. A strong policy aimed at Iran could nail the Russians, too.

The lack of initiative and effort in the United States and Europe to tackle the threat posed by Iran’s drone program is remarkable considering a coherent policy could effectively help to stop the war in Ukraine. 

If Washington finally wakes up, Iran will be less of a threat not only in Ukraine but also in the Middle East and everywhere else it exports weapons.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and at the Yorktown Institute. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebryen