Analysis: Boom time beckons for Iranian air force, with sanctions set to be lifted

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Analysis: Boom time beckons for Iranian air force, with sanctions set to be lifted
Gareth Jennings, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly
05 August 2015

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force operates mainly US-supplied aircraft, such as the Grumman F-14A Tomcat, that date back to the rule of the Shah of Iran. The lifting of sanctions after 36 years will enable Iran to repair or replace these aircraft, and countries are already offering their wares ahead of an expected recapitalisation process. Source: Mehr news agency

Just weeks after Iran agreed in Vienna a deal limiting its ability to manufacture a nuclear bomb, the Iranian air force is already positioning itself to revamp its ageing inventory, all but crippled by 36 years of international sanctions, reports Gareth Jennings .

Under a deal signed on 14 July between the Iranian government and the leaders of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, international economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted now that Tehran has agreed to limit its nuclear activities.

For the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), this represents an unparalleled opportunity to recapitalise an inventory of outdated and increasingly unserviceable aircraft types that were either received from the United States ahead of the country's revolution in 1979 or seized from Iraq following the Gulf War in 1991.

With the historic agreement still less than a month old, the IRIAF has already been linked with the potential procurement of new combat aircraft from both China and France, in the guise of the Chengdu Aircraft Corporation (CAC) J-10B and the Dassault Mirage 2000 respectively. According to media reports citing anonymous military and intelligence officials, Beijing has offered to supply the IRIAF with up to 150 J-10B fighters plus associated weaponry, while Paris is reported to have offered to supply surplus Mirage 2000 jets, which are in the process of being replaced in French service by the Rafale.

Neither has Russia been slow in getting in on the act. Moscow is said to be eyeing up a possible sale of either surplus or newbuild MiG and/or Sukhoi fighters to Iran.

Prior to the revolution in 1979, the United States supplied the Shah of Iran with about 500 of its latest-generation combat aircraft (79 Grumman F-14A Tomcats; 177 McDonnell Douglas F-4E, 32 F-4D and 16 RF-4E Phantom IIs; and 141 F-5E and 28 F-5F Tiger IIs). Combined with the many Lockheed Martin C-130E/H Hercules and Boeing 707 transport aircraft, Lockheed Martin P-3F Orion maritime patrol aircraft, and Boeing CH-47A Chinook, Bell UH-1 Iroquois, and Bell AH-1 Cobra helicopters also received, these made the then Imperial Iranian Air Force one of the most capable in the region, if not the world.

US sustainment and support of these platforms ceased with the fall of the Shah, however, leaving Iran to maintain them on its own. Though these US-supplied aircraft were later augmented with Chinese and interned Iraqi fighters (including French and Russian types), international sanctions meant Iran still faced an uphill struggle to keep them serviceable and fit for purpose.

In the face of the international arms embargo that has limited the IRIAF's access to badly needed spare parts, Iran has resorted to cannibalising aircraft deemed beyond repair, reverse-engineering some parts, sourcing others on the black market, and developing its own indigenous platforms.

Along with war losses and attrition, the cannibalisation of aircraft has helped reduce the IRIAF to a shadow of the force it was in 1979. According to IHS Jane's World Air Forces , the IRIAF today numbers some 370 fast jets. While this number may appear respectable enough on paper, only a fraction are believed to be available for tasking at any given time.

Iran has been somewhat successful in reverse-engineering many of the parts it has needed. The country's domestic aerospace industry (chiefly HESA and the Iranian Armed Forces Aviation Industries Organisation [IAFAIO]) has made great strides in indigenously manufacturing what it requires to sustain the country's military capabilities. The Iranian government has claimed the country is able to produce about 70% of the spare parts required to keep this fleet airworthy, and recently even asserted it had achieved complete self-sufficiency in this field (although these claims are believed to be exaggerated).

Over the years Iran has also tried to source the materials it needs from the black market abroad. Evidence of this third-party sourcing emerged in 2009 with the jailing in the UK of three businessmen who had sought to smuggle components into Iran, and in 2011 with a thwarted attempt to smuggle nine Bell 212 'Huey' helicopters and parts into the country from Spain.

Finally, Iran has sought to develop its own fighters (and other types as well) with, it has to be said, mixed results. Most of these have seemed plausible enough, being based quite obviously on US-types already in its inventory, such as the F-5-derived Azarakhsh (Lightning), Saeghe (Thunderbolt), and Simorgh (Phoenix). However, the Qaher (Conqueror/Omnipotent) F-313 'stealth fighter' was met with almost universal derision when it was rolled out in 2013 as many of its features showed it to be fundamentally flawed and hardly fit for flight, let alone combat.

The lifting of sanctions will therefore enable Iran to take an altogether more conventional path in the long-overdue renewal of its inventory. With countries already seemingly queuing up to offer their wares, the IRIAF stands on the brink of a recapitalisation effort that could dwarf even the one that took place under the Shah in the 1970s.
Analysis: Boom time beckons for Iranian air force, with sanctions set to be lifted - IHS Jane's 360