Iran once again boasts of its ability to develop and build fighter jets domestically amid growing signs that Russia is reneging on a sale of Su-35 Flanker fighter jets that Tehran was counting on using as a stopgap solution for its air force’s aging fighter fleet.
“At some point, we made a deal for the purchase (of the Su-35s), but we came to the conclusion that we can produce (fighter aircraft) in the country,” Iranian Defense Minister Mohammad-Reza Gharaei Ashtiani said on July 25.
His comments appear to reinforce recent reporting that Russia is failing to deliver the 50 Su-35s that Iran paid for before the current war in Ukraine began in February 2022. They can also be interpreted as Ashtiani exaggerating Iran’s capabilities. to design and build indigenous fighter jets to divert attention from Tehran’s undoubted embarrassment that Moscow failed to live up to its end of the Flanker deal.
Iran needed the Su-35, the closest plane Moscow has to an advanced 4.5-generation fighter, to upgrade its aging air force. Iran has not purchased any fourth-generation fighters since acquiring Soviet MiG-29 Fulcrums in the early 1990s. Tehran’s only other fourth-generation aircraft is its fleet of American F-14A Tomcats received in the 1970s before the revolution. Iran is currently the sole remaining operator of the venerable Tomcat.
On July 23, Iran launched an air force drill called Fadaeian Velyat-11 (Supreme Leader Devotees-11), which coincided with a US military buildup in the Persian Gulf region in response to the attack and harassment from Iran to merchant shipping. Eleven air bases are participating in the drill with 90 fighters and drones.
As with similar exercises of this type, the drill will once again showcase Iran’s aging fighter fleet, which has seen a marked increase in fatalities in recent years. For example, the night the exercise began, Iranian state media released footage showing Soviet-built Su-24 Fencer bombers and Vietnam War-era American F-4 Phantom II fighter bombers destroying ground targets.
While the Su-35 lacks critical features found on other 4.5 generation fighters, notably an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, Ashtiani’s suggestion that Iran could independently build comparable aircraft is highly questionable.
The ridiculous mock-up of the Qaher-313 stealth fighter that Tehran unveiled a decade ago aside, Iran has not excelled in producing anything more advanced than derivatives of the American Northrop F-5 light fighter jet. This design dates back to the late 1950s.
Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA) has been building variants of the F-5 since the late 1990s, beginning with the Azarakhsh and followed by the Saeqeh a decade later.
In 2015, Iran introduced a two-seat variant of the latter aircraft. That same year, a senior air force commander claimed that Iran would “manufacture an aircraft on the Saeqeh platform that would be equipped with fourth-generation (and even higher) avionics.”
In March, Iran began production of its indigenous HESA Yasin trainer aircraft, which is also capable of close air support missions. Tehran unveiled the HESA Kowsar in 2018, which looks identical to the F-5F, claiming that its indigenous upgrades qualify it as a fourth-generation fighter.
Iranian media have described the aircraft using terms such as “fourth-generation fully indigenous interceptor aircraft.”
While these plans certainly have significant improvements and upgrades over the F-5s Iran imported half a century ago, they are not replacements for its F-14s and MiG-29s or the newer 4.5-generation aircraft, including the Su-35 despite its limitations, And they certainly stand little to no chance of holding their own against fifth-gen fighters.
Ashtiani was not technically wrong when he claimed that Iran could produce fighters. He failed to mention that, to date, Tehran has proven incapable of building a fully indigenous fourth-generation or 4.5 fighter, which its air force merely needs to avoid total obsolescence in the not-too-distant future.