Air Force Modernization
In the early years of the 21st Century the Iranian Air Force was the Havana antique car collection of military aviation - a collage of elderly aircraft kept together with bailing wire, spit and ingenuity. This posture has been amplified with a variety of fake airplanes that are either slightly modified variants of the elderly F-5 Freedom fighter, or entirely deceptive [an entirely un-convincing] mockups of advanced stealthy aircraft. But eventually the butcher's bill will come due. Iran seems to have plausible plans for maintaining numerical force structure through the year 2030. But maintaining a quantitative posture is not enough.
Iran does not seem to have a clear path to acquiring fifth generation aircraft. Schemes such as the Qaher-313 are little more than unconvincing deception efforts, though the target of the deception is unclear [this may be for internal consumption]. China is developing an export oriented J-31, but Saudi Arabia seems a more likely first customer in the region. The Russian Su-57 proved too much for India to swallow, and the Russians seems to be in no hurry to bring this large aircraft to market. There are several European sixth generation projects under way, and Turkey, South Korea and Japan have fifth generations projects in development, but none of these sources seem plausible for Iran. With Israel already flying the F-35, and the Saudis poised to acquire a fifth generation fighter from either Russia or China, an Iranian air force devoid of such capability would seem of negligible combat significance.
The Islamic Iranian Air Force of 1980 did not have a long historical tradition. In a real sense, it was mostly a product of former President Richard M. Nixon's 1972 decision to allow the shah to buy whatever he wanted from US defense contractors. Before that time, the IIAF had been a relatively small affair with its most sophisticated aircraft being 129 F-5A/B fighters provided in the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely under the grant Military Assistance Program (MAP). From 1950 to 1971, American arms sales to Iran totaled only 1.2 billion, but during the next seven years, the cumulative total burgeoned to approximately $21 billion.
Although the Shah tried from 1973 on to proceed with vast expansion and modernization programs for all the services, the IIAF was the most favored service. It received the largest share of defense modernization expenditures and had less trouble than the other services in finding and retaining qualified personnel. From 1970 to 1977, the IIAF increased in numbers of personnel from 17,000 to 100,000 and in numbers of combat aircraft from 175 to 341. But such growth was not without problems. Sophisticated aircraft came into the inventory faster than air and ground crews could be trained. So much equipment was bought so fast that the American side of the exchange could not adequately account for all the transactions.
Although the IIAF had always been associated solely with American aircraft and American assistance, from 1972 forward, increasing US aircraft sales and US Air Force assistance helped the IIAF grow into almost a mirror image of the United States Air Force. Arms exports to Iran during the 1970s skyrocketed. In 1977 alone, the U.S. exported $5.7 billion dollars worth of equipment to Iran. Throughout the 1970s, Iran had purchased sophisticated aircraft for the Air Force. The acquisition of 77 F-14A Tomcat fighters added to 166 F-5 fighters and 190 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers, and gave Iran a strong defensive and a potential offensive capability. The P-3F, built for the Imperial Iranian Air Force, had a P-3C airframe with a cabin layout that was a hybrid of the P-3B and P-3C.
The IIAF acquired over 100 F-5As during the 1960s and early 1970s. The first F-5 Freedom fighters arrived in Iran in 1965, and Iran ordered a total of 103 F-5A's and 23 F-5SB's. Many of these were later sold to Vietnam, Turkey, Greece and Ethiopia. In their place Iran received F-5E/F Tiger IIs. The first examples were delivered in January of 1974, when 28 F-5Fs were received in Iran for conversion training. A total of 166 F-5E/Fs were supplied to Iran between 1974 and 1976. The Imperial Iranian Air Force F-5E/Fs were equipped to a high standard, with an onboard Litton inertial navigation system and weapons/ballistic computer.
The list of weapons sold included 160 F-16s (the F-16s were purchased, but not delivered). The Iranian Air Force was also to receive 7 AWACS (the only ones sold outside of NATO at the time) and long-range transports. Before the end of his reign, Shah Reza Pahlavi even contemplated the sharing of development costs for the United States Navy's new F-18 fighter. Both of these combat aircraft were dropped from the revolutionary regime's military acquisitions list.
After the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime in February 1979, the air force suffered an irreparable blow to the revolutionaries. Many high-ranking commanders were sent to execution squads for revolutionary executions. The lack of awareness of many clerics and revolutionaries and the lack of knowledge of strategic issues and regional threats and the accompaniment of a part of the intellectual class (such as a spectrum later known as national militias) was one of the factors that reduced Iran's defense capability. Even before the revolution under Shapur Bakhtiar's prime minister, with the pressure of the national-mediation spectrum, the purchase of weapons from the United States was canceled, which continued until the end of the interim government.
Also, on April 20, 1358, such as Mehdi Bazargan and Ibrahim Yazdi, with the approval of Ayatollah Khomeini, they intended to sell Iran's weapons and equipment to other countries. For example, on the recommendation of the Friday Imam of Isfahan, Ayatollah Taheri, heavens for helicopter helicopters, even demolished a number of helicopters to be ready for sale. Ebrahim Yazdi, with approval from Ahmad Khomeini, had offered the sale of F-14s to the United States, then to Canada and Turkey.
In the same years, contracts for the purchase of spare parts for the Air Force's aircraft were canceled, which, along with the refinement of the army, reduced the combat readiness of the force. In those days, no competition was held, the training was canceled, as well as the training process for new pilots stopped and all the training airships stopped so that, despite the combat missions to deal with various groups, such as in Kurdistan, the average daily flight of 220 sorties in 1356, fell 35 percent in 1979, to one sixth or 15 percent before the revolution.
The purge of the elite of the armed forces continued until the start of the Iran-Iraq war, and even during the unplanned operation, the release of American hostages in Tabas and then the Nijheh case intensified. Due to the need to increase the combat readiness of this force, in the second week of September 1979, the flying airships rose exponentially and the attempt to repair the jet aircraft was further increased.
Thus, the state of preparedness of the Air Force fighter bases, which before the revolution all were in the highest state of readiness, C-1 or excellent, reached a disastrous situation, so that the F-14 fighter base was in a moderate or C-4 situation. Of the 452 combat aircraft in the air force, only 306 were flyable, of which only 60% had complete combat readiness. Of the 954 pilots, navigator and radar officer or organization at the 9th Air Force's tactical battalion, there were only 543 survivors, of whom more than 150 had not completed their full flight training due to the revolution.
The status of the transport battalions of the first and fifth autonomous bases in Tehran and Shiraz was much worse than the fighter battalions; for example, of the 49 mmedium civilian aircraft, the C-130 Air Force had only 29 operational, of which only 3 had complete combat readiness. Of the 11 Boeing 747 heavy transporters or airliners, only four remained in service, and the rest, except for the two aircraft that were delivered to Iran, were fired due to the arrival of an overhaul. Of the six P-3F Marine Identification Orion, there were only two flyable, and there were many other examples.
Amazingly, even after the Shah of Iran fell from power in 1979 - leaving an anti-American regime - arms sales to Iran continued. It was only after the Iranian hostage crisis began in 1979 that sales were terminated. Interestingly, the Iranians tried to sell back the 80 F-14s they had purchased for $3 billion - as they proved difficult to maintain - but the U.S. was not interested.
After the Revolution Iran found it extremely difficult to keep their F-5 fleet operational. With sanctions imposed on Iran, no spares were left for the F-5 and many aircraft became unserviceable and others being cannibalized to keep the remainder flying. Throughout the Iran-Iraq war the lack of spare parts caused by the American arms embargo was complicated by the general lack of adequate numbers of trained maintenance personnel.
The IRIAF upgraded their remaining Tigers called the Offogh-project, which improved the range of the F-5 APQ-159 radar and enabling the aircraft to carry advanced missiles like the PL7, AIM-9P Sidewinders and R-60 Aphids. By the end of the century the remaining F-5's were nearing their end of operational life and the IRIAF was seeking a replacement.
In the 1980s, China and North Korea, with their "independent" policies on arms sales, were the only countries willing to sell Iran combat airplanes. Iran had acquired two Chinese-made Shenyang J-6 trainers in 1986, possibly from North Korea. Unconfirmed reports in 1987 indicated that Iran was receiving Shenyang F-6s (Chinese-built MiG-19SFs), and that Iranian pilots were receiving training in North Korea. In total between 16 and 25 F-6 aircraft were said to have been delivered sometime between 1984 and 1987. The reconnaissance squadron had also struggled to perform its duties with limited equipment. Once flying close to 34 aircraft, by late 1987 it was reportedly reduced to 8, and only after converted 5 Tomcats to serve in a non-combat role. It was not clear whether these 5 airplanes were in addition to the 10 reportedly in interceptor squadrons.
Given the technical sophistication of reconnaissance aircraft, it was almost impossible to acquire from non-Western sources aircraft capable of performing to Iranian standards. The only substantial acquisition was the purchase of 46 Pilatus PC-7 trainers from Switzerland. Iran requested three Kawasaki C-1 transports and a 3D air defense radar system from Japan, but this transaction did not appear to have materialized by 1987. Reports also indicated that Iran had placed with Argentina an order for thirty Hughes 500D helicopters. An order was place for 16 Mig-21 aircraft (12 Mig-21PFM and 4 Mig-21U trainers) from East Germany, but only 2 had been delivered before the transaction was canceled in 1989 following German reunification.
Beginning in the early 1990s a number of domestic aircraft projects were started. These included a number of projects designed at reclaiming existing aircraft and extending their service life, as well as production of copies or derivatives of foreign aircraft, with and without licenses. Considerable amounts of energy were spent exploring foreign markets for replacement parts and reverse engineering various components for the F-4, F-5, and F-14 fleets, along with the various western type helicopters primarily in service with the Army. By the end of the decade Iran's domestic aircraft industries had, with the help of foreign technical assistance, laid the ground work for series production of a number of trainer, fighter, and other aircraft. Iran had also begun an ambitious Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) program, that would also bear fruit in the following decade.
During 2002 Iran's state aircraft manufacturer HESA test flew a license produced copy of the Ukrainian Antonov An-140, dubbed the Iran-140, which it hoped to sell to military and commercial customers. Despite the tragic loss of many senior Antonov officials on their way to observe the test flight, the relationship between the two companies remained strong and a similar deal was also sought for the production of Tu-334 airliners for civilian uses.
In July 2003 Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Corporation (CAIC) unveiled the new "Super-7" or Chao Qi fighter plane to the public. The new Super-7 is an all-purpose light fighter, required to have all-weather operation capabilities, be capable of performing the dual tasks of dogfight and air-to-ground attack, and have the ability to launch medium-range missiles. Mass production of the fighter will not begin until two and a half years of research are completed. The plane is being produced to be sold abroad to developing nations. China said it had received orders from Iran and some African countries. Production of the Super-7 aircraft, now called the FC-1 (with an export designation of JF-17) was supposed to begin in 2006, but this was believed to have been delayed. Iran had not received any such aircraft by 2008.
Defense Industry Daily reported on 06 August 2015 that : "Following a visit by the French Foreign Minister in July, an Iranian government spokesman indicated [Farsi] that the procurement of new fighters - specifically Mirage fighters from France - would be a high priority following the lifting of sanctions. As the French Air Force brings in new Rafale jets, the older Mirage 2000 5-EI fighters it operates will be phased out. With Dassault's Mirage production line closing in 2007, the Iranian Air Force may look to buy ex-French Mirages in order to resupply the depleted 24 older models it currently possesses, or to acquire a new, proven multirole fighter fleet on a budget."
The J-10 is a single-engine aircraft that has a flight range of 2,900 kilometers. The J-10, which is known by the moniker “Vigorous Dragon,” is an advanced combat aircraft that foreign sources say is based on the original designs of the Lavi, an Israeli prototype whose manufacturing was canceled in the 1980s.
Iran will reportedly allow China to develop its largest oilfield for two decades in return for the delivery of 24 Chengdu J-10 fourth-generation multirole fighter jets under a deal estimated to be worth $1 billion, the Taiwan-based Want Daily newspaper reported in August 2015. If both governments confirm that the agreement is a go, and neither had done it so far, Tehran will become the second country to operate the export version of the J-10. In 2009, Beijing sold 36 J-10B jets to Pakistan for $1.4 billion, Watch China Times noted.
On 02 September 2015, it was reported that China had agreed to sell Iran advanced J-10 war planes – planes that many analysts believe contain Israeli-designed components. The deal was first reported by the Debka File web site, a prolific source of Israeli fake news. While the deal had not been independently confirmed by any of the governments, a Chinese newspaper said that a deal to sell Iran 20 J-10 planes had been struck. In return, Iran will provide not cash, but crude oil, which will be released over the next 20 years. The Debka File report had put the number of planes to be sold at 150. The Chinese report was widely circulated in Israeli media. International news agencies said that the deal was worth some $40 million. But this it was a bit ridiculous that the price would be $40 million for 150 advanced jet fighter aircraft.
On January 13, according to media reports from Middle East Online, Qatar's Emir (Head of State) Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani arrived in Iran and met with Iranian President Rouhani in Tehran, Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani provided Iran with $ 3 billion in financial assistance on behalf of Qatar to compensate the families of the victims who were shot down by Iran. However, according to a US Reuters report, Iran will only pay $ 1 to 1.5 billion to compensate the families of the victims, and the remaining funds will be used to purchase new weapons and equipment.
Sina reported 15 January 2020 that “The Emir (head of state) of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani arrived in Iran and met with the country’s president Rouhani in Tehran. Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani offered Iran $3 billion in financial assistance on behalf of Qatar for compensating the families of the victims who were killed in Iran. However, according to a report from the Reuters news agency, Iran plans to use $1-1.5 billion as compensation to the victims’ families, and the remaining funds will be used to purchase new weaponry and equipment. Iran’s Air Force is currently in the worst position with respect to equipment, and new fighters are urgently needed to replace the old ones. The J-10 is one of the potential targets”.
At the same time, the Chinese news agency pointed out that Iran remains extremely interested in Russian Su-30 fighters but, in light of the recent criticism against Russian military aircraft, primarily on account of the lack of spare parts, the country is still greatly interested in China’s Chengdu J-10.
Brigadier General Hassan Shahsafi, Commander of the Iranian Air Force, piloted a Northrop F-5 supersonic light fighter over an aviation exhibition at Vahdati Airbase in Dezful, Khuzestan Province on 26 March 2018. The F-5 fighter was recently overhauled by Iranian technical experts. Shahsafai performed a series of moves with the fighter, including flying at low altitude, aerobatic maneuvers, and touch-and-go landing which involves landing on a runway and taking off again without coming to a full stop. In compliance with the approved guidelines, commanders of Iranian forces have been barred from performing operational or training flights. However, Brig. Gen. Shahsafai flew the overhauled fighter voluntarily after obtaining permission from Army Commander-in-Chief Brig. Gen. Mousavi. The Iranian Air Force in recent years has shown remarkable capability in building parts and equipment and overhauling different types of planes and helicopters in a bid to promote resistance economy and cut down on expenses.
Experts and technical staff at Mehrabad’s Shahid Lashkari Air Force Base overhauled a grounded F-4 fighter jet 29 April 2018. The F-4 fighter jet had been grounded for several years. The overhaul process took one year and six months and 18,000 man-hours to be fit to return to the operational phase. The jet joined the operational fleet of the Army’s Air Force after a successful final test.
In the mid 2010s Iran began a modernisation program to upgrade its F-14s to F-14AM fighters. This would extend their operative life until 2030 and allow them to better contend with the most potent adversarial air superiority platforms - Saudi and Israeli F-15C fourth generation fighters. Upgrades have included superior avionics and adaptations to the fire control system allowing it to deploy weapons such as the R-73E, AIM-54A, AIM-7E and AIM-9J.
The experts and technical staff at Shahid Babaei Airbase, located in central Province of Isfahan, successfully overhauled a grounded US made F-14 Tomcat. The achievement was gained through 35,000 man-hours of constant efforts by Shahid Babaei Airbase military technical experts. The successfully-overhauled warplane rejoined the Iranian Army air corps after a final test on 17 July 2018. According to Army’s Public Relations Department on 06 NOvember 2018, experts and technical staff at Shahid Babaei Airbase in Isfahan have overhauled an F-14 Tomcat fighter, which had been grounded for several years. The overhaul process took 35,000 man-hours to make the F-14 fighter jet fit to return to the operational phase. The statement stressed that the whole process was done by relying on domestic knowledge and expertise. The overhauled fighter was successfully ran through a test flight, and joined the operational fleet of the Army’s air force.
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