There is probably no air force in modern history that deserves more credit for innovation and adaptive skills than the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF). For more than 35 years the Iranian force has struggled to maintain a fleet of aging American-made equipment, acquired under the reign of the former Shah of Iran.
Now, the widely anticipated nuclear pact between Iran and a consortium of Western nations will bring about a lifting of economic sanctions that have been in place for several years. With the unfreezing of assets around the world, Iran’s armed forces will be looking to acquire a number of modern weapon systems, most notably new combat aircraft. The current regime has seen its bank accounts across the world frozen, with an aggregate value of more than US $150 billion–preventing Teheran from accessing the funds.
As for its current aviation assets, all spares and after-sales support by the U.S. was terminated when the current clerical regime came to power in 1979. For a number of years Iran’s armed forces managed to acquire spares by setting up an overseas procurement division for their armed forces, which operated out of a seven-story building at 4 Victoria Street, London.
The official entity at this address was the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC). The address was a prestigious location–Westminster Abbey was across the street, and the famous Scotland Yard police headquarters was also nearby. So, it was the last place one would expect to be the center of a military procurement for a radically anti-Western Islamic regime. But eventually this office was shut down and Iranian procurement specialists had to find other covert and largely illegal mechanisms for getting their hands on much-needed spare parts.
General wear and tear on this U.S.-made equipment over the years has taken its toll. Iran has coped through years of improvising, scrounging, reverse-engineering and fabrication of components that could not be acquired by other means. IRIAF now operates a varied fleet that operates around 40 of the 79 Grumman Tomcats purchased under the Shah, around 60 F-4D/E Phantoms and a similar number of Northrop F-5E/Fs. Iran took on charge the 24 Dassault Mirage F1s that were flown from Iraq at the end of the Gulf War, and a similar number of Sukhoi Su-24s were acquired in the same fashion. Other evacuees from Iraq included some MiG-29s, augmented by subsequent deliveries from Russia, and some Su-25s that were recently returned to Iraq to join the fight against Daesh forces. Iran also bought around 20 Chengdu F-7s from China.
Russian, Iranian and other Middle East publications have openly discussed Iran’s intentions to use these soon-to-be-available funds to go on what more than one news outlet has described as a “buying spree.” At the top of the shopping list are a large number of Su-30MK-series fighter aircraft. This model would allow Iran to retire many of these older U.S.-made aircraft, plus the F-7, which is based largely on previous-generation MiG-21-era technology, though somewhat improved by Chengdu, China’s largest fighter aircraft design bureau.
Aside from the Su-30MKs that would become the backbone of the IRIAF, Iran has had in place for years now a contract with Russia for its Almaz-Antei S-300 air defence complex. Under international pressure and informal agreements with both the U.S. and Israel, Russia has refrained from fulfilling this contract, but now seems poised to finally follow through on delivery. According to statements made by Russian industry and Rosoboronexport (ROE) officials, the version of the system that Iran will be receiving is an updated and modernized version of the S-300, designated the Antei-2500.
There are two very significant aspects to Iran’s current leaning in the direction of major acquisitions from Moscow. One is that Tehran has decided to make Russia its strategic industrial partner–at least for now. The biennial Moscow International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) Russian national airshow, held in August, saw almost no Western presence, largely due to the U.S. and EU-imposed sanctions over Moscow’s occupation of the Crimea and Donbas regions of Ukraine. But their absence was at least partially compensated for by a major uptick in participation by Iran and other customers interested in Russian hardware.
Iran’s other primary defense industrial partner–China–also had a significantly larger number of visitors at this year’s MAKS. Iran was once thought of as a potential big buyer for a fourth-generation Chengdu product, the J-10, but this option seems to have been shelved in favor of a major acquisition from Russia.
One senior Iranian official at MAKS was the vice-president for Science and Technology, Sourena Sattari. He and Russia’s Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, have had a series of meetings in which the two sides have finalized an agreement on the joint production of more than one aircraft type, although the specific types have not been designated.
The two have also discussed extending their cooperation into different areas of aerospace technology and have signed agreements covering the development of engineering centers and industrial parks in both countries. Manturov will make an official visit to Iran after the Dubai Airshow to participate in the opening of a Russian industrial exhibition in Tehran.
“We are interested in supplies to this country; automobiles, aircraft, shipbuilding and other industries,” said Manturov during a recent visit to the city of Khabarovsk, in Russia’s far east. “We are prepared to work together on conditions of cooperation and joint projects,” he said. Iran is a country where “Russia sees its interest in terms of entering its market.” Coincidentally, the Khabarovsk region is also where KNAAPO is located, one of the two major Sukhoi production plants.
The other implication of Iran opting for major weapons purchases from Russia is that its own indigenous programs would appear to have been eliminated as options. Both the Azarakhsh, a reverse-engineered variant of the Northrop F-5 developed by Iran’s HESA plant, and the Sa’eqeh (Thunderbolt), a twin-tail variant of the same design, are not considered adequate for the current-day air combat environment.
Another program, formerly known as the Shafaq and now designated the Borhan in a new configuration, is not–by admission of the aircraft’s design team–being considered by the Iranian MoD either. Another design unveiled in February 2013, the Qaher-313, is reputed to be a stealthy design, but has been labeled a technological hoax by other experts. None of these aircraft is known to exist as a flyable prototype or to have actually flown.
An Israeli analyst commenting on the Qaher-313 design concept told the Times of Israel at the time it was unveiled that Iran’s real requirement is for “a defensive interceptor that gives them the element of surprise…that is big enough to carry real air-to-air missiles.” So far, the Su-30MK is the only aircraft that fits that requirement while at the same time being available for Iran to purchase.