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Su-30 Coming to Iran? Elite Russian Fighters in Iranian Hands Set be a Game Changer for the Middle East

"It remains in the interests of both Russia and Iran not to confirm reports of any planned deliveries of such fighters, at least until 2020 when the first aircraft can be dispatched"

Following Iran’s entry in the JCPOA nuclear deal with the Western powers, Russia and China and the resulting withdrawal of United Nations economic sanctions against the country in 2015, a number of sources have reported that Tehran has shown interest in acquiring advanced Russian made air superiority fighters to modernise its aerial warfare capabilities.

While the JCPOA deal, which still stands despite the withdrawal of the United States, bans countries from exporting offensive weapons to Iran without the express permission of the United Nations, permission the UN’s Western members would almost certainly deny, this restriction is set to expire in 2020.

<figcaption>Iran flies a mix of Soviet and decrepit US planes</figcaption>
Iran flies a mix of Soviet and decrepit US planes

Allowing Iran to freely acquire weapons from abroad has been strongly criticised by Israel and a number of figures in the Western bloc, and could well have significant implications for the balance of power in the Middle East.

The Iranian Air Force today remains far from remarkable in its capabilities. The service fields a number of Vietnam War era U.S. made F-4 and F-5 fighters, as well as the more formidable American made F-14 Tomcat air superiority fighters of which approximately 30 are combat ready.

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These fighters were relied on heavily to wage an eight year war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988, after which Iran was able to acquire a sizeable contingent of early variants of the Soviet MiG-29 and two dozen Chinese J-7 light fighters.

The country also received a number of older Soviet aircraft from Iraq in 1991 during the Gulf War, with pilots fleeing to the safety of Iranian airfields to escape the Western bloc’s bombardment of their own. These included some additional MiG-29 fighters as well as dozens of swept wing Su-22 and Su-24 strike platforms.

Iran has since inducted some indigenous light platforms such as the Saeqeh twin engine light fighter, a platform analogous to the U.S. F-18A and based on the same original F-5 design, and as a result of the sourcing of its fighters the Air Force today fields a somewhat ragtag force of over ten different combat aircraft types.

With the exception of the F-14 and the ageing Su-22 and Su-24 strike fighters, none of Iran’s aircraft were designed for power projection and all are relatively short range defensive multirole platforms.

While Iran has vastly expanded its influence across the Middle East, most recently sending military advisors to Syria to oversee the ever expanding deployments of a number of militias aligned with Tehran, the country lacks power projection assets from which to assert force directly from Iranian territory itself.

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While the country’s regional rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Western bloc’s primarily partners in the region, both field vast fleets of F-15 air superiority fighters and various variants of the F-15E strike fighter ideal for projecting power far from their own borders, Iran lacks such assets of its own and its Air Force relegated to an almost exclusively defensive role - a major shortcoming.

In regards to the extremely limited capabilities of Iran’s Air Force today, Israeli Air Force Brigadier General Israel Baharav stated:

“The Iranian Air Force is basically comprised of old U.S. planes and aircraft that the Iranians managed to obtain later. I believe that the Iranian Air Force could be taken into account only if (the Israeli Military) has to operate in Iranian airspace (i.e. the Iranian Air Force is incapable of effective power projection.)”

The general further stated regarding the underwhelming expeditionary capabilities of the Iranian Air Force and their inability to mount operation near or into Israeli territory: “Great distance and other factors play a role.

They of course could try, but they capabilities of their aircraft are extremely limited in case of accomplishing such a task. Their missiles pose a greater threat to us than their aviation.” Given the current capabilities of the Iranian Air Force, this remains a highly realistic assessment.

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Iran has, despite its lack of air superiority capabilities, continued to establish itself as a major regional power, and the air forces of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Western partners have been key assets to hold the expansion of Iranian influence in check.

Should Iran induct an air superiority fleet of its own however, acquiring high performance heavy fighters from Russia or China, it could well be key to shifting the balance of power in the Middle East firmly in Tehran’s favour.

A number of sources have reported since the signing of the JCPOA that Iran is seeking advanced Russian air superiority fighters to provide its air fleet with much needed modernisations.

Some sources have indicated that Iranian pilots, and even members of the Iranian aligned Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have already begun training in Russia to operate such advanced combat aircraft.

Given Russia’s close defence cooperation with both Iran and Hezbollah, which has expanded significantly since their close coordination in the war in Syria against a number of Western backed insurgent groups, this remains highly plausible.

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Iran has acquired a number of advanced weapons systems from Russia and the Soviet Union before it to defend its airspace in the past. Most recently this included the S-300 air defence system, a defensive weapon not covered by UN restrictions.

The fighter platform which Iran has reportedly shown particular interest in is the Su-30 air superiority fighter, an advanced variant of the Su-27 Flanker with air to air combat capabilities far surpassing those of the older Israeli and Saudi F-15C fighters.

Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan reportedly paid a visit to Moscow in February 2016 to discuss the potential acquisition of the Russian fighters, and a deal to acquire the fighters has quite possibly already been reached.

It remains in the interests of both Russia and Iran not to confirm reports of any planned deliveries of such fighters, at least until 2020 when the first aircraft can be dispatched, both to deny Iranian adversaries time to prepare themselves for the sale and to avoid unnecessary pressure from the Western bloc on both states.

An Iranian Defence Ministry source stated regarding the Iranian acquisition of the Su-30 around the time of the visit by General Dehghan to Russia:

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“Minister Dehgan will also discuss the delivery of Su-30 airplanes because the Defence Ministry believes the Iranian Air Force needs this type of plane. We’ve moved far in these discussions of purchases and I think that during the upcoming visit a contract will be signed.” This was also reported by Russian state media.

Minister Dehghan stated shortly before his trip to Russia, specifically citing the Su-30: “Today we need to pay attention to air force and aircraft and we seek to seal a deal with the Russians upon which we will have partnership in the construction and manufacturing of the jet fighter.” With Iran already fielding a vast light fighter fleet, the heavy Su-30 would fulfil a highly complementary role for the air force.

While Russia has since inducting the Su-30 in the 1990s developed more capable air supercity platforms, including the Su-35 ‘4++ generation’ super manoeuvrable fighter and the Su-57 fifth generation fighter, Iran’s decision to acquire the older platform is almost certainly a result of the country’s financial constraints.

The Iranian military is allocated one of the lowest budgets relative to national GDP of any country in the Middle East, and Iranian defence expenditure is dwarfed by those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and even the United Arab Emirates, and at an estimated $7 billion per year is closer to the defence spending of Qatar ($5 billion) than it is to any of these major Western aligned military spenders.

The Su-30, despite its age, is more than capable of surpassing the most advanced heavy fighters exported by Western powers - with the F-15 dating back over 40 years to 1976 and considerably inferior in its combat performance.

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The variant of the Su-30 Iran is set to acquire remains in question. High end variants of the Su-30 such as the MKII fielded by Venezuela, China and Vietnam or the MKI and MKK fielded by India and China respectively are significantly more costly than cheaper and more basic designs such as the Su-30K.

The more basic platforms could be acquired in larger numbers and would put a lesser strain on the Iranian defence budget, while still providing the country with a superior aircraft to the F-15C. The fighters lacks the cutting edge thrust vectoring systems, avionics and a number of other cutting edge features deployed by more advanced variants.

Considering the quality of Israeli Air Force pilots, some of the most capable in the world who even in the older F-15C could seriously challenge their Iranian counterparts flying a Russian Sukhoi platform, Iran may well seek a more capable variant of the Su-30 to maximise its technological advantage and better guarantee a favourable outcome in a potential conflict with its adversaries.

Whether Iran will find it easier to contract for the licence production of a more basic Su-30 variant which lacks cutting edge technologies could also be a significant factor influencing the type of fighter eventually acquired. The fact that Iran is reportedly seeking joint production of the aircraft however indicates that the country needs more than just a small fighter contingent, and is set to acquire the Su-30 in significant numbers.

With these fighters able to fly long range air support missions across the Middle East, from Syria, Lebanon and the Golan Heights to Saudi Arabia and much of the Persian Gulf, means that whatever Iran decides regarding its future acquisitions, it is set to have very significant implications for the Middle Eastern balance of power. 

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