An oil tanker owned by an Israeli billionaire was hit by a suicide drone off the coast of Oman on November 15.
Israeli government experts believe the drone that struck the tanker was an Iranian Shahed-136 and suspicion immediately fell on Tehran as the likely perpetrator.
Initial reports say no one was injured and, while the drone punched a hole in the ship, no oil leak was reported. This is lucky since the drone has an 80-kilogram (177-pound) warhead that can exact considerable damage.
It is not the first time the Iranians have targeted Israeli-owned oil tankers but it is the first time Tehran has used a drone instead of a missile or limpet mine.
The stock version of the Shahed drone is not known to be capable of hitting moving objects as it has no camera, radar or other onboard sensor.
How, then, did the drone identify and strike the Israeli tanker? Is there reason to be concerned about the future of safe transit in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea or other sensitive areas including the Black Sea and the Mediterranean?
The Shahed-136 has been sold by Iran to Russia, apparently in the thousands, and is being used primarily against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
The drone itself is made up mainly of Western electronics (mostly American) mounted on five custom circuit boards, and has a Mado (originally German) MD-550 four-cylinder gasoline engine claimed to be made in Iran but may be produced in China.
When the Russians got the Shahed-136 from Iran, they replaced the drone’s accuracy-challenged inertial navigation system with a Russian GLONASS satellite navigation system. Russia renamed the modified Shahed-136 the Geran-2.
There is reason to believe that the drone that struck the Israeli-owned oil tanker was a modified Shahed-136, suggesting that the improvements made by the Russians have been incorporated into Iranian production.
Iran still has outstanding orders from Russia for more Shahed-136 drones, to be deployed in the war in Ukraine.
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Stephen Bryen is a Senior Fellow at Yorktown Institute.