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Is There Still Hope For Iranian Air Power?

May 7, 2019

A batch of Saeqeh fighters during Army Day. Via Iranian media.

The past several months have seen an unmissable uptick in Iranian military activities meant to rouse nationalistic fervor as the economy withers from harsh US-led sanctions. Since late 2018 the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) enjoyed serious attention from state propaganda. The Eghtedar 97 exercises in January showed how the regular military or the Artesh could fight conventional battles with close air support. Then in late February, as part of Eghtedar 40 events that commemorated the 1979 revolution, the IRIAF held an exhibition at an airbase outside Tehran.

During this year’s Army Day on April 18 the IRIAF did their part to show off Iran’s military strength with flights over Tehran. Of course, these myriad activities can never gloss over the IRIAF’s decrepit state.

With its once impressive fleet of US-made fighter aircraft battered by the long war against Iraq from 1980 until 1988, Tehran managed to close a deal with Beijing for at least a hundred Chengdu F-7’s–these are Chinese copies of the ubiquitous Soviet MiG-21–before knocking on Moscow’s door. Years of negotiations with the crumbling Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation led to MiG-29UB’s and Su-24MK bombers reaching the IRIAF by 1992. The US’ diplomatic pressure did manage to halt further deliveries of MiG-31’s and even Tu-22M long-range bombers. An unexpected windfall came from Iraq, whose air force flew approximately 80 combat aircraft to Iran before Operation Desert Storm got underway.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Iran was no longer able to buy new combat aircraft for the IRIAF. No matter how elaborate its military exercises, the average age of the IRIAF’s fighters is now 50 years old. This applies to the largest segment of the IRIAF, the several dozen flyable F-5E/F Tiger and several dozen F-4D/E Phantoms. Their total strength outnumbers the smaller air force’s of the GCC countries who are Iran’s sworn enemies. Adding to this fleet are three dozen MiG-29UB’s and an almost equal number of airworthy F-14A’s left over from the original 79 Tomcats delivered by the US before the Shah’s downfall.

In a genuine feat against the odds, the Islamic Republic established a vast state-owned aerospace sector that can repair and maintain all of the armed forces’ aircraft. There were also efforts at manufacturing fighter jets but the results were dismal. The so-called “Kowsar” and “Saeqeh” multirole fighters are just F-5F Tigers with superficial changes. Attempts at launching the production of lightweight fighter-trainers showed a little promise but never flourished.

The combined pressure of attrition, small budgets, and having little access to imported spare parts means the IRIAF’s strength is never what it seems. Contrasting Iran’s success at building its military drone fleet, there are inherent risks of maintaining the same dated airframes throughout the 2020s. Foremost is the deterioration of their flight performance that risks both the pilots and their machines. Should an actual war erupt over the Persian Gulf pitting Iran against a coalition of US-allied air forces, the IRIAF can do its part fending off hostile navies and holding key choke points. But its best aircraft are still in grave danger from the F-22, the F-35A/B, the F/A-18, and the latest F-15 variants.

The best course of action for the IRIAF is finding a way to import new fighter aircraft from either China or Russia. With a sweeping United Nations arms embargo scheduled to be lifted by October 2020, Tehran has a small window it can exploit for modernizing its air force. (That is, if it raises its annual military budget to cover importing weapons from abroad.) The only viable combat aircraft worth purchasing in bulk from China is the FC-1, also known as the JF-17 Thunder manufactured by Pakistan’s state-owned aerospace company. The FC-1 is supersonic and designed to be armed with various munitions, from air-to-air to anti-ship cruise missiles. Upgrades such as an AESA radar inside its nose cone are offered by its manufacturer.

Russia, on the other hand, has a better selection for a customer like Iran. Depending on how the IRIAF envisions its warfighting role, the Su-30SME or the Su-35 are both combat proven. It’s also possible to structure a deal for them around bartering and loans in lieu of currency payments. If cost is such a headache, Sukhois can be disregarded for proven MiG-29’s or the latest MiG-35. Whatever its choices, the IRIAF have a gloomy feature ahead. Deliveries of more fifth-generation combat aircraft and air-launched cruise missiles to US allies in the Middle East bode ill for its ability to protect national airspace.

Below is an open source tabulation of fixed wing IRIAF combat aircraft.

F-7 dozens China
Mirage F1 10 France/Iraq
MiG-29UB 30+ Russia
F-14A 43 USA
F-5B/E/F several dozen USA
F-4D/E several dozen USA
Saeqeh 6 Iran
Kowsar ? Iran
Su-24MK 30 Russia
Su-22M4 less than 10 Russia
Su-25UBK less than 10 Russia



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