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Tehran Touts New Domestically-Built Fighter Jets, But Iran’s Air Force Remains Largely Antiquated

Iran is once again showcasing its capability to manufacture fighter jets domestically. However, these jets are heavily based on vintage U.S. airframes, and the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) fleet still consists of mostly antiquated aircraft.

On June 25, Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported that three new domestically-built HESA Kowsar jets were delivered to the military. In a ceremony marking the delivery, military officials once again hailed Iran’s self-sufficiency in building military aircraft.

While described by Tasnim as a “fourth-generation all-indigenous interceptor jet” the Kowsar appears to be a refurbished third-generation American-built F-5 fighter jet. Iran still possesses several of these jets that were purchased during the reign of the last Shah.

The unveiling of the Kowsar in August 2018 was heavily scrutinised by analysts since the fighter’s airframe is identical to that of the two-seater American F-5F rather than a wholly original indigenous Iranian design.

The Kowsar is heavily based on the F-5F airframe, although likely with new avionics and additional upgrades. It is also the latest in a long line of Iranian-built F-5 derivatives such as the preceding HESA Azarakhsh (first introduced in 1997) and HESA Saeqeh (introduced in 2007).

The IRIAF’s arsenal mostly consists of warplanes leftover from the Shah’s enormous military acquisitions in the 1970s. Tehran has, quite impressively, managed to keep many of the sophisticated F-14 Tomcats it bought then operational to the present day.

By doing so, it disproved Western news reports in the 1970s that presumed Tehran could not keep these warplanes operational without continuous American maintenance and technical support.

In 2007, the U.S. decided to completely shred its entire fleet of iconic Tomcats out of fear that spare parts could end up on the black market where Iran could acquire them.

Nevertheless, the IRIAF remains a largely antiquated air force. And while Tehran repeatedly touts its ability to build what amounts to upgraded F-5s it still wants the option of purchasing much more modern fighter jets in the near future.

In October, the United Nations embargo on Iran is scheduled to expire as agreed upon under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration vehemently opposes this and is scrambling to have it extended indefinitely.

Iran’s Ambassador to the U.N. Majid Ravanchi insists that extending the embargo would be “a very, very big mistake” and warned that if this happens, “Iran will not be under constraint as to what course of action it should take.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is particularly adamant that the arms embargo must remain in place. On June 23, he Tweeted that if the embargo expires, “Iran will be able to buy new fighter aircraft like Russia’s SU-30 and China’s J-10.”

“With these highly lethal aircraft,” Pompeo went on to claim, “Europe and Asia could be in Iran’s crosshairs. The U.S. will never let this happen.”

Pompeo’s Tweet included a map showing the respective ranges of the J-10 and Su-30SM albeit if, as journalist Seth J. Frantzman pointed out, they were to take a one-way trip.

While Iran might indeed consider purchasing new Russian or Chinese fighters for its aged air force – that’s if the embargo expires and if Tehran can even afford to make any significant procurements anytime soon – it wouldn’t likely use its air force in such a way if history serves as any indicator.

The IRIAF never operated its warplanes far outside Iran’s frontiers aside from daring airstrikes deep into Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini refused a request to send some IRIAF F-14s to help the Syrian Air Force against Israel early in his rule. Had he agreed, the outcome of the June 1982 air battles between Israel and Syria over Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley – when Israeli F-15s and F-16s shot down 88 Syrian MiGs while suffering zero losses – could have been a lot different had Iranian F-14s, armed with their deadly long-range AIM-54 Phoenix missiles, supported those Syrian MiGs.

In 2015, it was reported that Iran was sending two fighter squadrons, likely Su-24 Fencers, to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, this never transpired.

Also, the notion that Iran would attempt to use its warplanes for a long-range attack against its adversaries is unlikely given how relatively easily detectable they would be as well as the likelihood they would be intercepted and shot down before even reaching their targets.

In the run-up to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, military analysts dismissed the possibility that the Iraqi Air Force – then equipped with formidable MiG-29 Fulcrums and Dassault Mirage F-1s, many of which incidentally flew to Iran to evade inevitable destruction in that U.S.-led air war – could successfully attack Israel.

For one, Iraqi warplanes would have had to fly over hundreds of miles of desert undetected before confronting advanced Israeli interceptors. As one analyst quipped at the time, “It’s very difficult to get through a net that’s already set to catch you.”

Even if Iran were at war with its rival Saudi Arabia, Tehran would likely opt to use missiles and armed drones to attack Saudi targets rather than its jets. This is exactly what it was widely believed to have done in September 2019 when drones and low-flying cruise missiles successfully evaded Saudi air defenses and damaged Saudi Aramco oil facilities in the kingdom’s east.

All of this indicates that the IRIAF will remain a mostly antiquated air force consisting that won’t operate far outside Iran’s airspace.

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