Dubai Airshow

Iran’s Aerospace Sector Remains Isolated

 - November 11, 2019, 5:00 AM
Iran’s “indigenous” HESA Saeqeh is a reverse-engineered Northrop F-5 Tiger, partially disguised with a twin tail. Designers copied systems one-for-one wherever possible, substituting Russian components when necessary.

Iran has maintained its hope of re-integrating with the rest of the world’s aerospace industry and to that end last year held its ninth biennial airshow. When the previous show was held in 2016 this objective appeared as though it might finally come to pass.

In 2016, Iran’s Kish Island Air Show was the largest ever. The list of foreign exhibitors read like a who’s who in the civil aviation business. Foremost among them were firms that provide the infrastructure for airports around the world to move passengers and their baggage between terminals and aircraft, ticketing processes, catering, and a hundred other aspects of commercial air service.

The 2016 event also saw a larger presence of Russian aerospace firms. These companies stressed repeatedly “we are only offering commercial products and nothing from the military sphere.” The Russians and the European firms were all positioning themselves for the day when Iran would receive modern airline aircraft and would engage in modernizing its aging and overloaded airport hubs.

Turn of Events

In 2018 that optimism and all of these foreign firms were nowhere to be found. Many of these foreign firms exhibited in Iran in 2016 for the first time. They anticipated that the sanctions keeping Iran isolated from doing business with most of the rest of the world would soon be lifted.

They were all counting on what was called “the Iran nuclear deal”—formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or by its Romanized Iranian acronym of BARJAM—throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. 

The agreement signed in July 2015 between the five members of the UN Security Council—plus Germany and the European Union—called for some of the sanctions on Iran to be lifted. In return, the Islamic Republic would dismantle the uranium enrichment programs and other processes that could produce weapons-grade materiel.

When the U.S. withdrew from the agreement in May 2018, the mechanisms for U.S. and European firms to deal freely with Iran in high-technology products like modern airline aircraft were once again blocked.

Iran’s Current Focus

This left the 2018 expo as one in which there were almost no firms other than Iranian ones participating. The disappointment was palpable among the Iranian industry personnel as they had come very close to having links with the outside world, only to see those hopes dashed at the last minute.

This has left Iranian aerospace firms focusing on two potential markets left to them. One is selling their own homegrown products and capabilities in servicing other nations’ equipment in places where they can still do business.

“There are countries where we now promote our product lines. Not all of them are products that we sell to our own domestic customers,” explained a representative of Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organisation (AIO).  Some examples are Iran’s talent in designing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), as well as the propulsion and other subsystems that go with them.

Some of the target markets for Iran’s aerospace enterprises “are Azerbaijan, Pakistan and China,” according to one company representative. These markets are also a two-way arrangement for Iran to acquire spare parts and other technology-based assets that they would not be able to procure on their own.

Grumman F-14
1970s-era U.S. aircraft, such as this Grumman F-14, remain a staple of Iran’s air defenses. They keep them flying by acquiring some parts on the black market and reverse-engineering others.

This leads to their other area of business: support and modernization of Iran’s decades-old fleet of combat aircraft. These inlcude a mix of McDonnell-Douglas F-4s, Northrop F-5s, and Grumman F-14s acquired under the Shah in the 1970s, plus a fleet of Sukhoi Su-22 and Su-24 models, Mikoyan MiG-29 fighters and Chinese-made Chengdu F-7s (a reverse-engineered copy of the MiG-21).

Maintaining these aircraft, acquiring spare parts through illegal channels, or reverse-engineering and fabricating replacement components have been a major activity of Iranian aerospace for decades. Chinese industrial assistance was critical in the early days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Beijing’s firms are well-versed in the art of building facsimiles of other nations’ designs, and in the early years after the creation of the current Iranian state this skill was what kept Iran’s U.S. aircraft operating.

Segmentation

The mainline Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) has always had an obsessive attachment to U.S.-made aircraft in its inventory. Although the Russian industry has long hoped for a major sale of Su-30SMs or Su-35s to Iran, the country continued to cling to its older American platforms, especially the F-14.

Even one of Iran’s “indigenous” aircraft programs, the HESA Saeqeh, is a twin-tail copy of the F-5 Tiger. Industry specialists who were responsible for what was essentially reverse-engineering the Tiger’s design tell AIN that “wherever possible, we could copy the aircraft's systems one-for-one. Where we could not copy something on our own, we would try to use a suitable substitute that was Russian.”

In contrast, the other air force in Iran, belonging to the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), had less success with its own aircraft fleet. The company supporting them, called PARS, stated that they had almost no luck in securing support from the Russian industry for modernizing the Su-22s in IRGC inventory.

“We would ring them and ask for some assistance, and whoever answered the phone in Russia would slam down the handset and ring off,” said a PARS representative. “They said it was because of sanctions that they could not or would not deal with an Iranian firm, but the real reason is that they are not really interested in supporting older-model aircraft.”

In July 2018, the IRGC announced they had reactivated and upgraded 10 Sukhoi Su-22s after previously withdrawing them from service. Two of these modernized aircraft performed every day during the Iran Air Show’s flight display.

But to demonstrate that the IRGC and the regular armed forces are separately maintained entities, these two Su-22s flew their own flight routine, they did not land at the Kish Island airport and generally did not interact with the other units.

Whether or not this kind of a segmented and separated armed forces arrangement can be continued remains to be seen. While many in Iran still feel an affinity for their American hardware, they understand that these 1970s acquisitions from the U.S. cannot be operated indefinitely. The question that remains is how soon they will have to finally cut the umbilical cord connecting them to this American equipment and turn to Moscow for their modern-day defense requirements.