Saturday 3 September 2022

Ukraine’s Involuntary Ally: Iranian Arms In Ukraine

As many observers of the Russo-Ukrainian War are awaiting the possible debut of Iranian drones with the Russian Armed Forces, relatively few know that Iranian-made and Iranian-procured armament is already in active use on the battlefields of Ukraine since at least April 2022. Rather than being used by the Russian Army, these weapons systems are deployed by Ukrainian forces in their fight against the Russian Army. The story of how these weapons ended up in Ukraine is perhaps just as fascinating as the fact of their actual presence in Ukraine, and requires us to first delve into the topic of Iranian arms trafficking to Yemen and the efforts of Western countries to combat it.
The first sighting of Iranian(-procured) weaponry happened near the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih in late April 2022 after a citizen witnessed the suspicious burial of a number of barrels and informed the local police. [1] When police officers unearthed the barrels, it turned out these contained a Ukrainian weapons cache established for 'stay-behind' operations in case of a Russian takeover of the city. Included in the weapons cache were several types of explosives, ammunition and ten Chinese Type-56-I assault rifles, a type not operated by Ukraine before the war. Even though several European countries that have supplied Ukraine with small arms are known to maintain stocks of Type-56s, the light brown wooden furniture and underfolding stock indicated that the rifles in question were in fact more recently-produced examples acquired by Iran from China in the past decades. [2]

Only a part of the delivered Type-56-1s would actually enter service with the Iranian Armed Forces, with sizeable numbers held back for use in a potential future regional conflict or for distribution with proxy forces throughout the Middle East. The latter would occur after the 2015 Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen, in reaction to which Iran began supplying Houthi militants with all kinds of weapons systems. [3] This has included anything from small arms to air defence systems, cruise missiles, loitering munitions and even ballistic missiles. [3] The fact that these continue to reach Yemen in spite of a naval blockade in place is a testament to Iran's expertise in arms trafficking. Nonetheless, arms shipments are occasionally intercepted and seized by Western warships sailing in the area. [3]

Through these seizures the United States, the UK, France and Australia have come in the possession of more than ten thousand AK-pattern rifles, many of them Type-56-Is, machine guns, sniper rifles, RPGs, mortars, ATGMs and also a small number of Iranian air defence systems and cruise missiles. [3] While the air defence systems captured have undoubtedly been retained for extensive studying by intelligence agencies, there is little need for these countries to hold on to various types of Iranian-made or Iranian-procured armament, paving the way for their supply to other countries. With the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, their final destination was all but settled.

Seized Type-56 assault rifles piled on top of each other after being confiscated from a Yemen-bound dhow by the USS Jason Dunham in October 2018.

Further sightings of Iranian armament occurred in May and July 2022, when Iranian-made 82mm HM-19 and 120mm HM-16 mortars were seen in use with Territorial Defence Forces (TDF) [4] [5] The 82mm HM-19 mortar is a derivative of the 81mm HM-15 mortar that was specially adapted for Iranian proxy forces to fire Soviet and Chinese 82mm mortar rounds commonly found throughout the Middle East. The 120mm HM-16 is an Iranian copy of the Israeli Soltam K6 heavy mortar, which unlike the HM-19 still fires Western-type mortar rounds instead of their Soviet 120mm counterparts.
The discovery of Iranian mortars would quickly be followed by the first sighting of Iranian-made ammunition in early September 2022. [6] This consisted of 122mm OF-462 and 152mm artillery rounds for the D-30 and D-20 howitzer with their manufacturing date listed as 2022. This was later followed by the sighting of Iranian-made 122mm rockets, 125mm tank rounds and 120mm mortar rounds in January, February and March 2023. [7] [8] [9] No interception of arms shipments containing these rounds to Yemen have been reported in 2022, and it appears likely that the rounds were purchased from Iran via a third country such as Sudan. Using third parties to acquire arms and munitions for Ukraine is common practice, so far leading to the acquisition of such items from Bulgaria, Pakistan and Sudan.

It seems likely that several more types of Iranian-produced or Iranian-smuggled weapons types have meanwhile made their way to Ukraine. This could include additional small arms, machine guns, RPGs, mortars and even ATGMs. Hundreds of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have also been captured after more than half a decade of smuggling operations, and these too could well have found their way to Ukraine's increasingly diverse arsenal of armament. These constitute the more conventional (and therefore easily deployed) among weaponry taken from Iran, but a host of more exotic types are available if their delivery is deemed beneficial to the war effort.

Unearthed Chinese-made Type-56-I assault rifles originating from Iran encountered in a weapons cache near Kryvyi Rih in late April 2022.

The following list attempts to keep track of Iranian-made or Iranian-smuggled armament in service with the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The year shown in the brackets indicates the first sighting of the armament in Ukraine, not their delivery date. This list will be updated as further weapons types are uncovered.
(Click on the armament type to get a picture of them in Ukraine)

Heavy Mortars

Light Mortars

Small Arms

[3] List of Iranian Arms and Equipment Supplied to Houthi Militants in Yemen since 2015
Answering The Call: Heavy Weaponry Supplied To Ukraine