CNN EXCLUSIVE: One Iranian attack drone found to contain parts from more than a dozen US companies


Parts made by more than a dozen American and Western companies were found inside an Iranian drone that was shot down in Ukraine last fall, according to a Ukrainian intelligence assessment obtained exclusively by CNN.

The assessment, seen by U.S. government officials late last year, illustrates the scale of the problem facing the Biden administration, which has vowed to halt Iran’s production of the drones that Russia has flown by the hundreds into Ukraine.

CNN I mentioned last month The White House has created an administration-wide task force to investigate how American and Western technology — from smaller equipment like semiconductors and GPS units to larger parts like engines — got into Iranian drones.

Of the 52 Ukrainian components removed from the Iranian Shahed-136 drone, 40 appear to have been manufactured by 13 different American companies, according to the assessment.

The remaining 12 components are made by companies in Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and China, according to the assessment.

The options available to combat this issue are limited. The United States has for years imposed severe export restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining high-quality materials. US officials are now looking at strengthening enforcement of these sanctions, encouraging companies to better monitor their supply chains and, perhaps most importantly, trying to identify outside distributors who take these products and resell them to bad actors.

NSC spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told CNN in a statement, “We are looking for ways to target Iranian drone production through sanctions, export controls, and talking to private companies whose parts were used in production. We are evaluating further steps.” What we can take in terms of export controls to restrict Iran’s access to technologies used in drones.”

An Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone, seen amid Russia's attack on Kyiv on October 17, 2022.

There is no evidence to suggest that any of these companies are violating US sanctions laws and knowingly exporting their technology for use in drones. Experts told CNN that even with many companies promising to increase surveillance, controlling where these parts are located everywhere in the global market is often very difficult for manufacturers. Companies also may not know what to look for if the US government does not prosecute and punish those who buy and sell products for illegal purposes.

And the Ukrainian intelligence assessment is further evidence that, despite the sanctions, Iran continues to find an abundance of commercially available technology. For example, the company that made the drone, Iran Aircraft Industry Corporation (HESA), has been under US sanctions since 2008.

One major problem, experts said, is that it is much easier for Russian and Iranian officials to set up front companies to use to buy equipment and evade sanctions, than for Western governments to expose those front companies, which can sometimes take years.

“This is a game of Whack-a-Mole. The US government needs to get incredibly good at Whack-a-Mole,” said former Pentagon official Gregory Allen, who is now director of the Artificial Intelligence Governance Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Mole, period.”These are core terms of reference for the American national security establishment — or better yet, they become.”

Allen who recently Co-authored an investigation On the effectiveness of U.S. export controls, he ultimately said, “There is no substitute for strong internal capabilities in the United States government.”

Be warned, it is not an easy task. The microelectronics industry relies heavily on hard-to-trace third-party distributors and vendors, and the microchips and other small devices that end up in many Iranian and Russian drones are not only cheap and widely available, they are also easily hidden.

Why do smugglers love diamonds? Allen said. “Because they are small, lightweight, and worth a lot of money. Unfortunately, computer chips have similar characteristics.” He added that success would not necessarily be measured in stopping 100% of transactions, but rather in making it more difficult and expensive for bad actors to get what they need.

The rush to stop Iran from manufacturing the drones is becoming more urgent as Russia continues to deploy them across Ukraine with relentless ferocity, targeting civilian areas and key infrastructure. Russia is also preparing to set up its own factory to produce them with Iran’s help, according to US officials. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday that Ukrainian forces had shot down more than 80 Iranian drones in just two days.

Firefighters work after a drone attack on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 17, 2022.

Zelensky also said that Ukraine had intelligence that Russia was “planning a prolonged attack with a witness,” betting that it would “exhaust our people, our air defense, our energy sector.”

A separate investigation of Iranian drones shot down in Ukraine, by UK-based Conflict Armament Research, found that 82% of the components were manufactured by companies based in the United States.

Damien Spleeters, deputy director of operations for Conflict Armament Research, told CNN that sanctions will only be effective if governments continue to monitor which parts are being used and how they got there.

“Iran and Russia will try to circumvent those sanctions and try to change their acquisition channels,” Spleeters said. “And that’s exactly what we want to focus on: getting in the field and unlocking those systems, tracking components, and monitoring changes.”

Experts also told CNN that if the US government wants to strengthen enforcement of the sanctions, it will need to devote more resources and hire more staff who can be on the ground tracking sellers and suppliers of these products.

It deals primarily with enforcement of export controls, said Allen, of CSIS, referring to a branch of the Department of Commerce. “And now, all of a sudden, they’re at the forefront of national security technology competition, and they’re not being remotely resourced in that context.”

According to the Ukrainian assessment, among the U.S.-made components in the drone were approximately two dozen parts manufactured by Texas Instruments, including microcontrollers, voltage regulators, and digital signal controllers; GPS module by Hemisphere GNSS; Microprocessor by NXP USA Inc. ; and circuit board components by Analog Devices and Onsemi. Components made by International Rectifier – now owned by Germany’s Infineon – and Swiss company U-Blox were also discovered.

A microcontroller bearing the Texas Instruments logo was found in the drone by Ukrainian officials

CNN sent out email requests for comment last month to all of the companies the Ukrainians identified. The six respondents emphasized that they condemned any unauthorized use of their products, while noting that combating diversion and misuse of semiconductors and other microelectronics is an industry-wide challenge they are working to address.

“TI does not sell any products to Russia, Belarus, or Iran,” Texas Instruments said in a statement. “TI complies with applicable laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate, and partners with law enforcement organizations as necessary and appropriate. In addition, we do not support or condone the use of our products in applications for which they are not designed.”

Gregor Roedhauser, a spokesman for German semiconductor maker Infineon, told CNN that “Our position is very clear: Infineon condemns Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. It is a flagrant violation of international law and an assault on the values ​​of humanity.” He added, “Apart from direct action, it proves difficult to control consecutive sales over the entire life of a product. However, we require our customers, including distributors, to only conduct consecutive sales in line with applicable rules.”

Analog Devices, a Massachusetts-based semiconductor company, said in a statement that it is ramping up efforts to “identify and combat this activity, including implementing enhanced monitoring and auditing processes, and taking enforcement action where appropriate… to help reduce unauthorized resale, diversion and unintentional misuse of our products.”

The company “complies with all applicable export control restrictions and sanctions imposed by the countries in which we operate. Military applications are not an area of ​​focus for NXP. As a company, we strongly oppose the use of our products for violations of human rights “.

Onsemi, a semiconductor manufacturer based in Phoenix, Arizona, said it complies with “applicable export control and economic sanctions laws and regulations and does not sell directly or indirectly to Russia, Belarus, or Iran, nor to any foreign military organizations. We cooperate with law enforcement and government agencies as per necessary and appropriate to demonstrate how Onsemi conducts business in accordance with all legal requirements and that we adhere to the highest standards of ethical behaviour.”

Swiss semiconductor manufacturer U-Blox said in a statement that its products are for commercial use only, and that the use of its products for Russian military equipment “is a clear violation of u-blox’s terms of sale applicable to customers and distributors alike.”

This story has been updated with comment from the National Security Adviser

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