Britain's 'swarming drone' research shared with Iran

New evidence show joint studies involving UK and Iranian scientists on ‘advanced military technology’


2N8T2XN Tehran, Tehran, Iran. 11th Feb, 2023. Iranian domestically built drones, Shahed 136 is displayed during the annual rally commemorating Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. (Credit Image: © Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press via ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!

Scientists at British universities are helping Iran develop “game-changing” swarming drone technology that could allow hundreds of Unmanned Arial Vehicles to be operated simultaneously using lasers, the JC can reveal.

Military experts believe the command-and-control system could enable Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — which runs its military drone programme — to launch overwhelming suicide swarm attacks on Israel or Western allies, linking drones, aircraft, ships, missiles and underwater buoys.

Details of the work on the futuristic airborne communications networks is the latest research unearthed by a JC investigation into how Iran is exploiting links with British scientists to circumvent sanctions on technology with potential military uses.

Last week, it was revealed that at least 11 British universities were collaborating with Iranian engineers on research that has potential military applications, including developing faster, high-altitude drone engines, upgraded fighter jets and battlefield armour plating.

Senior MPs and peers expressed deep concern over the findings, with a government spokesperson saying that Britain would “not accept collaborations which compromise our national security”.

Now three newly identified advanced research projects show more UK specialists — this time based at universities in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and at King’s College, London — working with Iranian scientists on similar “dual use” technology.

Military experts described the work, which could allow the control of huge fleets of UAVs, as “highly dangerous”.

The academic papers under the spotlight — which do not overtly mention military or battlefield uses — each looked at linking numerous drones using lasers to create a sophisticated airborne mobile communications platform.

The network could allow hundreds of drones to “talk” to each other and ground controllers at lightning speeds.

The equipment could have civilian uses, including, as one paper says, providing internet “bandwidth to disaster-stricken areas, covering suburban area networks, traffic monitoring, and rescue operations”.

But experts were left in little doubt that the research — developed alongside scientists at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, which has been sanctioned for its role in Iran’s nuclear programme — also had far-reaching military applications.

An expert on Iran’s military, Farzin Nadimi, senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said: “Initially, [Iran developed] drones for reconnaissance, then gradually started working on the suicide drones. From the very earliest stage, universities were involved.

“Shahid Beheshti University is known for drone research. They have a very strong faculty. They develop young engineering graduates who later join the Ministry of Defence or IRGC.”

Reviewing one of the papers, he said: “Free space optical communications do have military applications, for example in drone swarms. They are resistant to jamming.”

Dr Yehoshua Kalisky, a specialist in laser technology at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, also said the research involving Iran and British universities had “very clear military value” .

He said: “These papers are extremely important. They reflect the dual use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, and it’s clear the Iranians could exploit this research for military purposes.

“Each paper is important on its own. But taken together, they suggest a new paradigm for wireless communications that could be used on the battlefield, giving you extremely precise control over a fleet of drones.

“This could be a game changer, used to maintain command and control not only over a drone fleet, but ground forces too.”

He added: “People may try to defend these collaborations on the grounds that there should be academic freedom, but in my opinion, they pose a real threat, owing to the dual use of these technologies, and we have to be very careful. The Iranians already have enormous technical capability.”

Dr Kalisky said a control system of this type could be used to coordinate “tens, or even hundreds” of drones in simultaneous attacks on Israel or its western allies. “Just imagine how dangerous that would be,” he said.

He said Iranian drones had already been used in smaller coordinated drone strikes in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacked oil-production facilities and a ship moored at an oil terminal in the port of Al-Dabah.

Another expert, Tal Inbar, of the Washington-based Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, agreed the papers’ findings lent themselves to military applications. He said: “In dealing with Iran, you can’t conceive of research as a pure academic project, because of the regime. We need to be much more careful.”

He added that working with scientists in Britain might also benefit Iran because laboratory facilities at elite British universities “may well be superior to those in Iran”.

The UK sanctions regulations specifically prohibits work on drone technology. They say the “export or transfer by electronic means” of technology used for the development of UAVs “is prohibited to any destination in Iran”.

The ban also covers drone “avionics and navigation equipment”. Breaches of these regulations are a criminal offence and can be punishable with up to seven years in prison.

Earlier this week, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told the House of Commons that the Government was investigating the JC’s reports after being questioned on the issue by Conservative MP Bob Blackman.

Cleverly confirmed the government was “looking into” the involvement of British universities, adding that the UK would “continue to stand firm on our commitment that Iran cannot become a nuclear weapons state”.

Blackman told the JC it “further strengthens the case” for proscribing the IRGC, and called for a “total ban” on UK-Iranian academic collaborations related to technology.

“Any collaboration with Iran is a threat both to our interests in the Middle East and, quite frankly, to world peace, because the regime is a menace wherever it manifests itself. We should not be working with Iran, full stop,” he said.

On Wednesday, a delegation led by the Jewish Leadership Council met the Foreign Secretary to raise the JC’s findings. Cleverly said he was taking the matter “extremely seriously” and was considering whether sanctions had been breached. But he gave no sign that banning the IRGC was imminent.

JLC Chair Keith Black said: “We’d like to thank the Foreign Secretary for taking the time to meet with us and show his continued support. It is vital that our foreign policy is used to combat antisemitism around the world.”

Stephen Crabb MP said: “The depth and breadth of support which UK universities appear to have given to a hostile regime is quite remarkable. This research is not only a clear breach of existing sanctions, but may directly contribute to Iran’s war crimes. The Government must be swift to bring an end to this farcical situation.”

A University of Edinburgh spokesperson said: “We are keenly aware of issues of national security and comply with all UK Government guidelines.

"The collaboration in question was limited to written comments on a single paper. This modelling study was based on information in the public domain and no data was shared by researchers from the University of Edinburgh.”

A Glasgow University spokesperson said: “Research at the university explores the very edges of human knowledge and understanding to bring world-changing discoveries. Research teams work in collaboration with academics, institutions and organisations from a broad spectrum.

“All research carried out at the University of Glasgow is underpinned by polices and a Code of Good Practice that ensures it is conducted to the highest standards of academic rigour.”

And a King’s College London spokesperson said: “King’s has in place robust policies and risk evaluation processes, which include appropriate review, consideration and scrutiny, alongside applicable national and international security requirements and relevant regulatory guidelines.”

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Allowing Iran access to elite British institutions may one day haunt us

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