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. 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. 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. 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.
Continued in Part Two