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Iran Can Make Its Own Sidewinders

December 20, 2020
Via Iranian media.

Four decades after Iran and the United States become sworn enemies a strange symbiosis in military technology is still taking place between them. A publicized visit by a navy admiral to a state-owned small arms factory in September brought to light another recent innovation of the Islamic Republic. As shown by the photo above a new missile put on display for the VIP is an almost exact replica of the AIM-9 Sidewinder; the historic air-to-air missile that has seen continuous use for more than half a century.

Before 1979 the Shah of Iran enjoyed unfailing support by the US whose successive presidents lavished him with generous arms deals. This included hundreds of fixed wing combat aircraft such as the F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat. To this day the Iranian air force or IRIAF are the sole remaining operators of the latter model. Of course, selling these premium fighters to Iran at the time meant supplying their munitions as well, which explains why the Islamic Republic still has ample stocks of various US-made ordnance in its possession.

The Iranian effort to clone the AIM-9 Sidewinder isn’t well-recorded but evidence of such began appearing online in the 2010s. A specific variant revealed in 2018 was an air-to-ground anti-tank missile for the Artesh’ Cobra attack helicopters named the “Azarakhsh.” It turns out the Iranian clone of the Sidewinder was viable enough for other roles. This year saw the emergence of an Iranian Sidewinder repurposed as a surface-to-air missile (SAM) for fast attack craft. In the photo above released by the Revolutionary Guards’ news website a VIP and his entourage visited a state-owned armaments factory in late September.

It seems the visit included a display of the unnamed Iranian Sidewinder variant. Judging by the tarpaulin banners arrayed along the edge of the display the missile is a short-range air defense or SHORAD for a warship, whose outline is printed on the second banner from the left. Repurposing Sidewinders as SAMs is far from novel and during the Cold War the US Army adopted the M48 Chaparral, a tracked launcher armed with a quartet of Sidewinders, as its preferred mobile SHORAD along with the Vulcan self-propelled anti-aircraft cannon. Developed in the late 1960s as a stopgap until a better SAM was available the Chaparral served for almost three decades and was exported to many allies.

But Iran never acquired the same weapon system for its own military since the Chaparral did have its share of problems like target acquisition and its missiles suffered from reliability issues. A naval variant used by Taiwan was even less successful and never saw combat. Iran’s navy and the Revolutionary Guards’ own surface fleets have no shortage of weaponry between them. Choosing a reverse-engineered Sidewinder as a ship-based SAM for what looks like a corvette is rather odd since Iran’s military-industrial sector boasts a catalog of anti-aircraft missiles including several short-range SAMs. These span copies of the French-made Crotale sourced from China and copies of Chinese MANPADS that have potential applications on surface vessels.

This Iranian Sidewinder variant whose exact name hasn’t been revealed joins a broad selection of reverse-engineered precision weapons now originating from the US that are now made by Iran. The most startling examples of these are the Iranian analogs of the MIM-23 Hawk and the RIM-66A missile. When it comes to air-launched ordnance, the Iranian Sidewinder joins a growing arsenal of air-launched weapons copied from the AGM-114 Hellfire, the AGM-65 Maverick, the AIM-54 Phoenix, and GBU-series Paveway bunker busters–to name a few. Like so many other Iranian weapons the risk of this particular missile is its transfer to regional proxies who may use it against US allies.

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