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Middle East , Aircraft and Anti-Aircraft

Iran's Su-22 Fighters; How Soviet Made Heavy Strike Platforms Serve as a Major Offensive Asset for Tehran Today

June 30th - 2018

Iran’s Air Force today is one of the most diverse in the world, fielding over ten different fighter and attack aircraft types from the United States, the Soviet Union, China and France as well as indigenous platforms. This extreme diversity has come not by choice, but as a result of the Islamic Republic’s political circumstances - namely that since realigning its foreign policy away from the Western bloc in 1979 following the Islamic Revolution Tehran it has struggled to acquire modern combat aircraft and has resorted to effectively taking what it can get while maintaining and extending the lives of American platforms in service. Operating so many different combat aircraft types at once however has seriously increased maintenance costs and requirements for the Iranian fleet.

The Iranian Air Force received a major enhancement to its capabilities in 1991, when during the Gulf War the Iraqi Air Force flew approximately 100 fighter jets to Iran to escape the relentless Western air campaign which had destroyed much of the Iraqi fleet on the ground and put its airbases out of action. Whether this was an attempt by the government of Saddam Hussein to draw Iran in to its war effort, or whether Iraq sought to protect its valuable air assets for future wars, remains uncertain. Other theories regarding the decision to send fighters to Iran - a hostile country with which Iraq had been at war less than three years earlier, are manifold. Iraq’s Air Force was at the time among the largest in the world and fielded highly capable modern combat aircraft, with severe shortcomings in the quality of its pilots and its command structure overwhelmingly responsible for its gross underperformance. With the Iranian Air Force at the time struggling to rebuilt its forces following the Iran-Iraq War, the fighters acquired from Iraq proved an invaluable addition to its fleet. The Soviet heavy strike fighters, the Su-22 and Su-24, were of particular value to Iran which had negligible strike capabilities of its own at the time. The Iranian Air Force was able to field over 40 Su-22 strike fighters and a further 30 Su-24 fighters in the aftermath of the Gulf War, giving Tehran perhaps the most capable strike fleet in the Middle East at the time and one of the largest in the world. Though the Iranian Air Force was somewhat familiar with the Su-24 design, having recently acquired a small contingent of approximately half a dozen platforms from the Soviet Union, the military had no experience with the Su-22 and struggled to service these complex swept wing strike aircraft - lacking either the manuals or the parts to do so.

It would take some years before the Iranian Air Force was able to reliably restore the Su-22 for combat service - but efforts put into the restoration program proved highly worthwhile given the strike fighter’s advanced capabilities. Syria reportedly provided some assistance in the restoration, as Damascus was a major operator of the strike fighter and strengthened its defence ties with Tehran throughout the 1990s. Iranian fighters were modernised to allow the to operate better in 21st century theatres, and were provided with advanced electronics and guided weapons to enhance their strike capabilities. While operating at modest speeds of little over Mach 1.5 (approximately the speed of the U.S. F-35), the strike fighters can deploy a sizeable armament of over 4000kg which can include laser guided bombs, electro optical bombs, thermobaric rounds and modern indigenous munitions. The fighters’ 1100km range meanwhile put a number of valuable targets within striking distance - from U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan to population centres in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The Su-22's ability to deploy state of the art Kh-58 anti radiation missiles, with a 120km standoff range and a formidable speed of Mach 3.5, does much to compensate for the aircraft's age and allows them to post a considerable threat to targets far from Iran's borders. The missiles can reportedly be fitted with specialised seeker warheads, allowing them to more effectively neutralise enemy air defence systems such as the Iron Dome, Patriot and THAAD batteries deployed by U.S. allies in the war's opening stages to facilitate more effective ballistic missile attacks afterwards. The missile's high speed and manoeuvrability makes it effectively impossible to intercept for these air defence platforms

The Su-22 remains one of the Iranian Air Force’s most valuable assets, and arguably the greatest addition to the Iranian Air Force of the weapons systems acquired during the Gulf War. The strike fighters are currently also in service in Syria, Angola, Vietnam and Poland and have all been extensively modernised to make them viable for modern warfare. The Iranian Air Force’s Su-22 fleet is likely to remain in service for decades to come, and alongside the Su-24 provides Tehran with strike capabilities which serve as a highly effective complement its ever growing ballistic missile forces. With Iran reportedly planning to acquire modern air superiority fighters from Russia, potentially the Su-30 or Su-35, these platforms will provide an excellent complement to the Su-22 as escorts on long range strike missions. Until then the strike fighters will remain somewhat vulnerable to enemy air attacks, with the vast majority of Iran’s current fighters poorly suited to such an escort role.

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