Russia could supply fighter jets to Iran, significantly improving the Iranian air force and its aging stable of aircraft. The reports that Moscow could be considering this unprecedented move came last week as Iran tensions with the US, Israel and the region are peaking.
In addition it came a year after Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia has received drones from Iran - might Russia be paying Iran “in kind” for the drones, by sending some old fighter jets?
US warnings came true
US warnings about Russia’s moves and Iran-Russia ties in the past have been borne out. Thus, reports that Moscow might provide Iran with jets are worth taking seriously.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that Tehran had sent munitions to Russia last year. “We believe Russia might provide Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including missiles, electronics and air defense. We believe that Russia might provide Iran with fighter jets,” Kirby said in a call that was widely reported.
What else might Moscow put on its list of provisions to Tehran? It could send helicopters, radars and training aircraft. “We were concerned it was going to go both ways, and those concerns are certainly being realized,” Kirby said.
Russia has supplied jets to other countries. Back in 2013 reports said that Russia was discussing providing Syria, a key ally of Moscow, with MiG-29 M/M2 fighter jets. That jet is an advanced version of the MiG-29 twin-engine aircraft that has been operating with the Russian and previously Soviet air force since the 1980s. Russia had also discussed sending the Yak-130 combat trainer to Syria. Both of these would be relevant for Iran.
Syria as a testing ground
During the Syrian civil war there was speculation Russia was using the war there as a testing ground for weapons and also to boost sales. Russia tested its Su-30 and Su-35 in Syria, for instance. One report several years ago noted that Algeria had purchased Sukhoi SU-32 fighter bombers due to the conflict. This was reported to be export version of the Su-34. Algeria hoped to update its aging fleet of MiG-25s with the aircraft. Other countries, such as Pakistan, Vietnam and Indonesia also expressed interest in Russian aircraft and helicopters during the war.
Reports have suggested that Russia could provide Iran with the Su-35. In some ways the Russian decision could be looming because it has lost out on markets for its jets around the Middle East. That means it has jets that were pegged for sales which fell through. A report at Al-Monitor in mid-January noted that “Algeria had rejected a deal to purchase Russian Su-35 fighter jets. According to Algerian defense analysts, Algiers came to the decision due to a lack of a modern on-board radar station, which does not meet the requirements of the Algerian military.”
Algeria had purchased the Su-30MKI and Su-30MKA and MiG-29 M/M2 but didn’t go through with the next step. The Al-Monitor report also noted “Cairo agreed to buy 30 Su-35 fighters from Moscow in 2018. Earlier, Egypt has already received from Russia 46 MiG-29M / M2 fighters and 46 Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopters worth more than $3 billion under 2015 contracts. Information on the number of Su-35 fighters already delivered Egypt varies. Some sources say five have been received.” But Indonesia cancelled an acquisition of SU-35s.
Defense News also noted that “before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s aerospace leadership had planned to market the next generation heavy fighter bomber, the Su-57, and its highly touted derivative the Su-75 to several foreign military buyers. These plans now appear to be in ruins… For foreign buyers, that leaves the Sukhoi 35 (Su-35), the only Russian military aircraft in serial production. This is Russia’s signature heavy fighter bomber — although its combat record over the skies of Ukraine is mixed. But even the Su-35 might not be successfully exported in any significant numbers this decade.” Russia has also failed to realize its plans to make next-generation aircraft, such as the Su-57 and Su-75 relevant.
"Before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s aerospace leadership had planned to market the next generation heavy fighter bomber, the Su-57, and its highly touted derivative the Su-75 to several foreign military buyers. These plans now appear to be in ruins."Defense News
Another article at Defense News noted “The Yakovlev Yak-130 advanced trainer/light-attack aircraft is a popular choice among regional air forces seeking to recapitalize fleets of legacy Russian or Soviet bloc trainer aircraft or to acquire light-attack and air defense capabilities. The type is in use with the air forces of Bangladesh, Laos and Myanmar, which operate 11, 10 and 18 of the aircraft, respectively. Vietnam has also begun accepting deliveries of a dozen it has on order.” Myanmar, according to this report, is an operator of the Mi-35P attack helicopter and Su-30.
Iran currently operates numerous aircraft that have their origins in the 1960s and 1970s. These are mostly American models, such as F-4s, F-5s and F-14s. It has some Su-24s and has sought Su-35s for years. It also flies old Bell helicopters.
Iran’s main interest would be to acquire Su-30s which would give its air force an expanded range around the region. Iran has also sought out the Su-34 and Su-35 and has expressed interest in the 5th generation Su-57. The Su-34 has been flying since the 1990s and would give Iran a bombing capability. The Su-35 is an air superiority fighter that is modelled after the older Su-27. Russia continues to make Su-35s, Su34s, Su-30s and Su-57s.
Russia hasn’t been using its air force much in the Ukraine war. It fears having its fighters and bombers shot down and appears to lack the strength and confidence to use the planes. It did use planes in Syria. Most accounts agree that Russia has suffered not only export losses due to the war, but that its serial production of aircraft has fallen.
That means Russia may not have many planes to sell and what it does have may be old and unimpressive. In short, it might provide Iran a few aircraft that had been destined for cancelled sales elsewhere. This won’t really change things for Iran’s airforce. A dozen jet aircraft does not make an air force - Iran has invested in drones for a reason.
This gives it a way to threaten the region, but is an asymmetric kind of threat. Iran simply doesn’t have the capacity to really modernize its airforce beyond a few token acquisitions. Also, Iranian pilots would need training. Even if a country like Iran has a few new aircraft, it won’t be able to use them in a real conflict. Iraq had an air force in 1990 and it proved ineffective.
A real air force requires decades of investment and training and planes that work well together, and modern aircraft that are 5th generation will be able to easily destroy any of the piecemeal aircraft that Russia might send Iran. In short, Iran’s potential acquisitions in Russia’s flailing aircraft market is more a sign of the weakness of the two countries, than a real gamechanger.