Recent reports indicate that Iran and Turkey are pushing ahead with their respective projects to build enormous factories in Russia and Ukraine for manufacturing large numbers of their homegrown Shahed and Bayraktar drones.
On Jan. 5, a high-level Iranian delegation visited the Russian town of Yelabuga, about 600 miles east of Moscow. Iran and Russia have ambitious plans to build a large factory there that will manufacture at least 6,000 drones based on Iranian designs. Iran has already supplied Russia with hundreds of Shahed-131/136 loitering munitions – single-use, self-detonating drones – for the war against Ukraine.
Reports that Moscow and Tehran had plans for establishing assembly lines on Russian soil first emerged in late 2022. Tehran has been using its civil airliners and boats to smuggle its drones to Russia — something it will no longer need to do upon the eventual inauguration of this factory.
On Jan. 24, there were further indications that plans for another drone factory were also steadily progressing. The Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, told a press briefing that the “entire legal framework” for a Turkish Baykar drone factory in Ukraine was complete. Baykar Defense is the manufacturer of the well-known Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone, which has seen combat in numerous wars in recent years and been exported to just under 30 countries, among others.
“There is a company that is currently operating in Ukraine, and it has prepared a physical project… We expect the plant will be put into service within the next two years and will start to produce goods with Ukrainian component parts,” Bodnar said.
His estimation of two years echoed Baykar’s CEO Haluk Bayraktar, who told Reuters in late October 2022 that plans for the factory were “moving ahead” despite the ongoing war.
“Right now we have architectural design. The detailed design phase is finished. And we will move ahead with construction actually… within two years we would like to finish it,” he said at the time. Bayraktar also discussed details about the construction of the drone factory during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv early the previous month.
Unlike the planned plant in Yelabuga, Turkey and Ukraine’s plans for a Baykar factory in Ukraine predate the onset of Russia’s February 2022 invasion. In October 2021, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba announced that the “land plot on which the factory will be built has already been chosen.”
Turkey sold Ukraine approximately 20 Bayraktar TB2 drones before the war began and at least 50 since its outbreak. Iran has delivered hundreds of Shahed-type loitering munitions to Russia since August 2022, along with reusable types such as the Mohajer-6.
The Baykar facility in Ukraine will have at least 300 people working on a 30,000-square-meter site. They will reportedly manufacture the large and advanced Bayraktar Akinci drone and the jet-powered Kizilelma unmanned fighter in addition to the ubiquitous TB2.
Ambassador Bodnar mentioned that the drones would contain Ukrainian components. That’s unsurprising. After all, the Akinci and Kizilelma are already powered by Ukrainian-built engines – the former is powered by two Ukrainian Ivchenko-Progress AI-450 turboprop engines and the latter by a single AI-322F turbofan.
Such a sizable facility producing these drones in Ukraine could reduce the pressure on Baykar at home. Currently, the private company can build 20 drones per month but is facing a three-year order backlog due to popular demand for its systems.
At Yelabuga, Iran and Russia have plans to develop a new model of the Shahed-136 with a new engine that can increase its range and speed. The present model is slow and noisy, making them relatively easy targets for Ukrainian air defenses. Kyiv welcomed 2023 by shooting down 45 out of the 45 Shaheds Russia launched against it. Moscow reportedly already had to modify its Shahed-136s in late 2022 to prevent them from malfunctioning in cold weather.
It’s unclear if any other Iranian drone types are planned for Yelabuga, although it’s likely. For months, reports have indicated that Moscow could soon receive the much faster, long-range Arash-2 drone from Tehran, which can carry a larger payload greater distances at faster speeds than the Shahed-136. Iran may well deliver those drones sometime this year, possibly after October. It might also collaborate with Russia to produce more advanced versions, possibly even including jet-powered models, in the foreseeable future.
However, mass production of drones in either facility is unlikely to begin anytime soon. In Ukraine’s case, the two-year timeline may prove overly optimistic, even if it were peacetime. Nevertheless, the visit by the Iranian delegation to Yelabuga and repeated reaffirmations from Ukrainian and Turkish officials on Baykar’s Ukraine project strongly suggest that these factories could begin their respective rival operations sometime in the latter half of this decade.