Parts made by more than a dozen American and Western companies were found inside a single Iranian drone shot down in Ukraine last fall, according to a Ukrainian intelligence assessment obtained exclusively by CNN.
The assessment, which was shared with US government officials late last year, illustrates the scale of the problem facing the Biden administration, which has pledged to halt Iranian production of drones that Russia launches by the hundreds in Ukraine.
CNN reported last month that the White House has created an administration-wide task force to investigate how American and Western manufacturing technology – ranging from smaller equipment like semiconductors and GPS modules to bigger parts like motors – ended up in Iranian drones.
The options to combat the problem are limited. The United States has for years imposed strict export control restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining high-end materials. Now, U.S. officials plan to strengthen enforcement of these sanctions, encourage companies to better monitor their own supply chains and, perhaps most importantly, try to identify third-party distributors who take these products and resell them to bad actors.
There is no evidence to suggest any of these companies are breaking US sanctions laws and knowingly exporting their technology for use in drones. Even though many companies promise increased oversight, it’s often very difficult for manufacturers to control where these highly ubiquitous parts end up in the global marketplace, experts told CNN. Companies may also not know what they are looking for if the US government has not caught up with and sanctioned the actors who buy and sell the products for illicit purposes.
And the Ukrainian intelligence assessment is further evidence that despite sanctions, Iran still finds an abundance of commercially available technology.
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 were made by companies in Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and China, according to the assessment.
Sanctioned Iranian companies appear to be successfully circumventing efforts to cut off their supply of crucial components and electronics. For example, the company that built the downed drone, Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries Corporation (HESA), has been under US sanctions since 2008.
One of the main problems is that it is much easier for Russian and Iranian officials to create front companies to use to buy the equipment and evade sanctions than it is for Western governments to uncover these front companies, which can sometimes take years, experts said.
“It’s a game of Whack-a-Mole. And the United States government needs to get incredibly good at Whack-a-Mole, period,” said former Pentagon official Gregory Allen, who is now director of the Artificial Intelligence Governance Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies “This is a core competency of the US national security establishment – or it better be made one.”
Allen, who recently co-authored a survey of the effectiveness of US export controls, said ultimately, “nothing replaces strong internal capabilities within the US government.”
He warned that it was not an easy task. The microelectronics industry relies heavily on hard-to-track third-party distributors and resellers, and the microchips and other small devices found in so many Iranian and Russian drones are not only inexpensive and widely available, they are also easily concealed.
“Why do smugglers like diamonds? Allen said. “Because they’re small, light and worth a ton of money. And unfortunately, computer chips have similar properties. Success won’t necessarily be measured by stopping 100% of transactions, he added, but rather by making it harder and more expensive for bad actors to get what they need.
The rush to stop Iran from manufacturing the drones is growing ever more urgent as Russia continues to deploy them across Ukraine with relentless ferocity, targeting both civilian areas and key infrastructure. Russia is also preparing to establish its own factory to produce them with help from Iran, according to US officials. On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian forces had shot down more than 80 Iranian drones in just two days.
Zelensky also said Ukraine had intelligence that Russia was “planning a prolonged attack with Shaheds”, betting it would lead to “depletion of our people, our air defense, our energy sector”.
A separate investigation into Iranian drones shot down in Ukraine, conducted by British investigative firm Conflict Armament Research, found that 82% of components were made by US-based companies.
Damien Spleeters, deputy director of operations at Conflict Armament Research, told CNN that sanctions will only be effective if governments continue to monitor what parts are being used and how they got there.
“Iran and Russia will try to circumvent these sanctions and will try to change their acquisition channels,” Spleeters said. “And that’s precisely what we want to focus on: getting out into the field and opening up those systems, tracing the components and monitoring the changes.”
Experts also told CNN that if the US government wants to strengthen sanctions enforcement, it will need to dedicate more resources and hire more staff who can be on the ground tracking sellers and resellers of these products.
“Nobody really thought about investing more in agencies like the Bureau of Industry Security, which were really sleepy parts of the DC national security establishment for a few decades,” CSIS’s Allen said, referring to a branch of the Department of Commerce that deals primarily with the enforcement of export controls. “And now, all of a sudden, they’re at the forefront of competition in national security technology, and they’re not remotely funded in that vein.”
According to the Ukrainian assessment, among the US-made components found in the drone were nearly two dozen parts built by Texas Instruments, including microcontrollers, voltage regulators and digital signal controllers; a GPS module by Hemisphere GNSS; a microprocessor from NXP USA Inc.; and printed circuit components by Analog Devices and Onsemi. Components built by International Rectifier – now owned by German company Infineon – and Swiss company U-Blox were also discovered.
CNN last month emailed requests for comment to all companies identified by Ukrainians. The six that responded emphasized that they condemned any unauthorized use of their products, while noting that combating the diversion and misuse of their semiconductors and other microelectronic components is a company-wide challenge. the industry they are striving to lift.
“TI does not sell any products in Russia, Belarus or Iran,” Texas Instruments said in a statement. “TI complies with applicable laws and regulations in the countries where we operate, and partners with law enforcement agencies where necessary and appropriate. Additionally, we do not support or condone the use of our products in applications for which they were not designed.
Gregor Rodehuser, spokesman for German semiconductor maker Infineon, told CNN that “our position is very clear: Infineon condemns Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is a flagrant violation of international law and an attack on the values of humanity. He adds that “outside of direct trade, it is difficult to monitor consecutive sales over the life of a product. Nevertheless, we ask our customers, including distributors, to make only consecutive sales in accordance with the applicable rules.
Analog Devices, a Massachusetts-based semiconductor company, said in a statement that it was increasing its efforts “to identify and counter 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.
Jacey Zuniga, director of corporate communications for Austin, Texas-based semiconductor company NXP USA, said the company “complies with all applicable export control restrictions and sanctions imposed by US countries we operate in. Military applications are not a priority area for NXP. As a company, we vehemently oppose the use of our products for human rights abuses.
Phoenix, Arizona-based semiconductor manufacturing company Onsemi also said it abides by “applicable export control and economic sanctions laws and regulations and does not sell directly or indirectly to the Russia, Belarus or Iran or any foreign military organization. We cooperate with law enforcement and government agencies as necessary and appropriate to demonstrate how Onsemi conducts business in accordance with all legal requirements and that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct.
Swiss semiconductor maker U-Blox also said in a statement that its products are intended for commercial use only and that use of its products for Russian military equipment “is in clear violation of Russia’s terms of sale. u-blox applicable to customers and distributors”. ”