Iran struggles to field a fighter

 - December 6, 2006, 2:01 PM

Western powers increasingly characterize Iran as a potential cause for instability in the Middle East. The U.S. and its allies charge Tehran with funding and supporting the insurgency in Iraq, maintaining a well-developed ballistic missile program and seeking its own nuclear arsenal. But while those high objectives may or may not occupy the Iranian government’s wish list, the acquisition of a new-age fighter aircraft does not seem to command anywhere near the funding priority Iran has reportedly given its missile and nuclear programs. In fact, the country’s efforts to design and develop its own aircraft do not seem to have progressed meaningfully in the last three years, leaving in question its viability as a serious producer.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) has suffered through a difficult history over the 25 years since the 1979 Khomeini Revolution. Today, it maintains an aging fleet of largely Vietnam-era aircraft, supplemented by some acquisitions in the 1990s of Russian-built Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters and Sukhoi Su-24 fighter-bombers.

Many considered the buys from Moscow a first step in a plan to switch from an all-American to an all-Russian-made air force. But the follow-on procurements that Russian defense export agency Rosoboronexport dreamed up never materialized and the IRIAF has had to make do with a fleet of largely U.S.-made fighters equipped with 1970s avionics.

Iran has chosen not to buy its aircraft from abroad, after suffering since 1979 under a U.S. embargo that forbids the sale of spare parts or other technical assistance to Iran. Fabricating copies–reportedly by plundering U.S. military stockpiles in the Philippines and elsewhere or finding other ways to acquire parts illegally–has become a major preoccupation for the Iranians.

The country had enjoyed some success using front companies based in the UK to buy spares illicitly from the U.S., but that avenue was blocked when Customs Service agents raided the U.S. offices of those London-based firms, Multicore Ltd. and AKS Industries, in 2003. Officials estimate that more than 50 U.S. firms shipped spares to Multicore, which transferred them to the UK for sale to Iran.

Russian Help

With the London connection shut down and given the other problems associated with maintaining their U.S. aircraft, few wonder why Iran’s defense policy switched to developing a new aircraft and weapons designed and built in Iran. The three Iranian fighter projects the country has shown to the world are the Shafaq (Farsi for “Before the Dawn”), the Azarakhsh (Lightning) and the Owj (Zenith) or Sae’qeh-80 (Thunderbolt).

The Shafaq is perhaps the most well-known of the three. Developed at Malek Ashtar University of Technology in Tehran, the project advanced under the guise of an “educational exchange program” with Russia. More than 20 designers formerly employed at leading Russian design bureaus Mikoyan and Sukhoi went to Tehran to develop the aircraft’s planform and complete a full-up detailed design.

Developers planned three variants of the Shafaq–a two-seat jet trainer and a one- and two-seat light fighter/attack aircraft. Despite the obvious connection to previous Russian design studies, a Malek Ashtar official named H. Rousteai insisted angrily to Aviation International News that “this is not a Russian-inspired” idea and that the Shafaq “concept started in Iran and is finished in Iran.” Notwithstanding Rousteai’s protestations,  a previously unknown Russian designer named Fatidin Mukhamedov displayed the Shafaq design at the 1993 Dubai airshow.

The Shafaq appears to get its funding from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rather than the regular armed forces, and has fallen far behind the original program schedule set for it as recently as late 2002. First flight was supposed to happen in August 2004, but so far all that is known to exist of the Shafaq, other than paper drawings, are some models and a full-scale mockup that has been shown on Iranian television. The Iranians now say they project the rollout of an actual flying prototype to happen in 2008.

The Shafaq drawings show a subsonic attack aircraft with an empty weight of just over 11,000 pounds, an overall length of about 46 feet and a 39-foot wingspan. The design includes seven stores hardpoints–three beneath each wing and one beneath the aircraft’s fuselage centerline.

Iran’s other two fighter programs–the Azarakhsh and the Sae’eqh-80–both have taken their inspiration from the U.S. Northrop F-5. Iran has a lot of experience with the aircraft and had even acquired additional F-5s from Vietnam, some of which reportedly came in the same crates they had been stored in when the North Vietnamese army overran the south in 1975.

The supersonic Azarakhsh is understood to be a reverse-engineered F-5, but about 10- to 15 percent larger in overall size and wing area. Developers announced a first flight in 1997, and after some delays, series production at a low rate (approximately 10 per year) beginning in 2001. Most of the aircraft’s flight controls, engines and other major mechanical systems come from or replicate those of the F-5, but the radar and avionics reportedly come from Russia. It weighs about 17,637 pounds empty and can fly at up to Mach 1.6.

The Sae’eqh-80 is a more ambitious project based again on the F-5, but featuring a twin-engine, twin-tailed configuration with the vertical tails canted outward in the style of the Boeing F/A-18. It appeared last year on Iranian television, but officials have made  almost no announcements regarding its status of production or introduction into service.

Overall, the three programs reflect the opposing agendas and preferences of Iran’s regular air force (which still likes its vintage U.S. designs) and the IRGC (which appears happy to accept Russian and other foreign help to try to develop an indigenous aircraft). But, whatever course the Iranian military takes, it will remain dependent on foreign sources for engines, avionics and weapon systems. As things stand, the country appears to lack both the economic strength and the armies of technical specialists that the Chinese have thrown into their efforts to build their own military aircraft. Any effort to build a new air force with new-age fighters would take many years to reach a conclusion.

One foreign defense analyst speaking to AIN anonymously confirmed that the fighter developments take second place to Iran’s more menacing ballistic missile program. “The Israelis developed their Arrow missile defense system because they wanted to counter Iran’s missile fleet, not its air force,” he concluded.