Iran’s Vintage Air Force Eyes a Quantum Leap


Iran has invested enormous effort and resources to keep its half-a-century-old fighter aircraft airworthy. In September, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) lost another fighter jet, a Russian-made and extensively upgraded Su-22; a similar one crashed in August too. These losses were preceded by  the crash of a US-made F-14 Tomcat. Since Iran  bought 79 of these American jets,  it became nearly impossible to keep them airworthy after the 1979 revolution because of sanctions blocking access to spare parts and technical expertise. Iran  reportedly managed  to keep about two dozen of them airworthy after attritions in the Iran-Iraq War, besides it decided to use a few for spare parts to keep the others airworthy.  However, Russia’s and China’s help has been  vital in maintaining them and modifying their weapons carrying capabilities. As Iran remains the only  customer for F-14 Tomcats,  there is  no black market for its spare parts unlike the C-130 aircraft and a host of other American systems in  its inventory.

In May, an F-7 fighter jet of the IRIAF  crashed, killing both pilots. The  Chinese-made Chengdu F-7 is a copy of the Soviet-era MiG-21. Though the airframes and engines of such jets have aged, sanctions-stricken Iran is not interested in replacing them, especially as they face no real spare parts supply issues. Instead, Iran aspires to purchase more modern fighter jets.  Earlier, Iran’s F-4s, F-5s and MiG-29s plunged to the ground due to “technical problems.”

Iranian Brigadier General Kioumars Heidarian, a veteran  retired pilot who was trained in the United States and also flew with the IRIAF  after the 1979 revolution, told ISNA in an interview, “The situation would have been much better if new fighters replaced the current dilapidated fleet.”

The reimposition of sanctions after the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal hurt Iran financially and prevented  its allies like China from selling it advanced weapons systems including fighter jets. However, Russia remained defiant against the US-led sanctions but did not agree to provide Iran with its fighter jets like the Su-30 Flankers or MiG-35s on loan.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presented an opportunity  for Iran to further cement its ties with a similarly sanctioned and isolated major global power while talks to revive the nuclear deal in Vienna  remained in limbo. Soon the Kremlin’s “special military” operation met unexpected resistance in Ukraine, and Tehran offered its armed drones.

Russia sent its experts for assessments of Iranian drones and training.  By the time the Russian Ministry of Defense presented its shopping list to its Iranian counterpart, Iran was ready with its bargain. Tehran reportedly agreed to sell its drones to Russia in exchange for Su-35 Flanker-Es (4++ generation multirole fighter jets).

 China is Russia’s only export customer of Su-35s, with 24 units already commissioned. Indonesia too has canceled its order in favor of France’s Rafale jets. The jet comes with weapons load options of matching sophistication and range too.

 Let us start with the financial side of “the deal.” A single Su-35 is estimated to cost $45 million, hence  the cumulative price of 24 units  along with weapons-package soars to above $2 billion. How expensive are the drones that Tehran is selling to Moscow in large numbers? If the purported deal is true, then Iran is also likely  to supply other military hardware or services that are not publicly known yet.  The actual number of Su-35s for barter is likely to be much lower than the number wanted by the Iranian side.

Given the ground realities such as the minuscule chances of reviving the nuclear deal,  the depletion of Iran’s already vintage air power and the lack of defense customers  for Russia, the deal sounds plausible and viable. According to some reports, Iranian pilots have already completed training on Su-35s in Russia.

Acquiring a dozen Su-35 Flankers in exchange for its indigenous (mostly suicide) drones will be a spectacular achievement for Iran’s military. The performance of Iran’s drones on the battlefield is a key variant though. Iran’s Shahed-136 drones, which are being used by Russia,  have not made an impact on the battlefield anywhere close to Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2. However, the Shahed-136 drones are certainly diverting Ukraine’s resources from fighting Russian troops to tracing  and shooting expensive missiles at them. Given its desperate situation, Moscow expects the Iranian drones  to transform the battlefield in its favor. This  has not happened so far and may not in the future too. The conflict in Ukraine is entering a new phase thanks to two factors, Russia’s deployments of inadequately trained conscripts and the setting in of a harsh winter. The desperation on the Iranian side is multifold too because of   diminishing hope of the sanctions being lifted and the Iranian street growing increasingly more restless amid deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and widespread protests in light of the death of Mahsa Amini.

The prospect of a dozen or so Su-35s entering Iran’s air force exists on paper. This will only happen  if Russia finds  Iran’s drones useful enough to acquire more and transform the battleground in its favor. Such an upgrade could end Iran’s dependence on  unreliable fighter aircraft which have been part of its fleet for over 40 years. With the induction of 4++ generation jets,  the IRIAF will have better defensive capabilities, but the air force’s doctrine will hardly change.  If by any breakthrough the  nuclear deal is revived, Iran will also rush to acquire China’s J-10 fighter jets alongside weapons-package in larger numbers and with advanced air defense systems from Beijing and Moscow. 

Editorial Team