Iran might buy two dozen Su-57 fighters equipped with hypersonic air to air missiles

Despite being named as one of the United States’ four ‘great power adversaries’, and succeeding in expanding its influence and projecting its power across the Middle Eastern region at the expense of the Western Bloc and their allies, Iran has invested relatively little in power projection capabilities for its armed forces and retains a defence budget dwarfed by those of its primary regional rivals.

The country’s emphasis on support for paramilitary operations abroad, and on ballistic missiles and drones to provide a regional strike range, has combined with its limited defence budget led to a neglect of more conventional capabilities for a major power such as high endurance destroyers and modern strike and air superiority fighters.

Iran today has many adversaries across the Middle East, both state and non state entities, which possess formidable military capabilities and seek to undermine the Islamic Republic.

Alongside numerous non state actors such as Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which have carried out attacks against Iranian targets in the past, the country’s state adversaries include several modern and highly capable military forces – primarily Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

All these states have called for regime change in and threatened military intervention against Iran. Growing Saudi-Israeli military cooperation specifically targeting Iran, and a fast expanding American military presence in the Gulf region with a particularly strong focus on aerial warfare, indicate that the threat to the Iranian position of strength from these actors remains real.

With even smaller Western clients such as the United Arab Emirates retaining levels of defence spending which dwarf that of Iran, and with the Iranian Air Force deploying just two fighter squadrons adequately equipped for modern beyond visual range combat, the possibility has been raised that Iran will prioritise investment in modernising its aerial warfare capabilities.

This has already occurred to some extent with considerable investments made in developing modern air defence systems such as the 3rd of Khordad, Khordad 15 and Bavar-373, although purchases of more advanced Russian systems such as the S-400 and of Russian fighter jets are expected to be made in the 2020s. With the United Nations’ ban on the sale of offensive weaponry to Iran set to be lifted at the end of 2020, discussions for major arms purchases are speculated to have already begun.

The backbone of the Iranian Air Force today is comprised of Vietnam War era third generation F-5E and F-4D/E fighters, with newer early fourth generation platforms such as the F-14 and MiG-29 fielded in more limited numbers. With 17 fighter squadrons in service, a short term comprehensive modernisation effort is likely to prove far too costly for the country’s defence budget particularly considering the considerable economic difficulties faced as a result of growing U.S. economic sanctions.

While investment in more modern air defence systems such as the Russian S-400 provides a cost effectively means of improving Iranian defences, the limitations of ground based systems as a substitute to fighters are considerable and will fail to address many major shortcomings in Iran’s current aerial warfare capacity.

There is is significant chance, therefore, than Iran will seek to invest in acquiring a small number of very high end fighters capable of comfortably outperforming the main platforms fielded by its leading potential adversaries – namely the F-16E, F-18E and a number of variants of the F-15.

Acquiring small numbers of elite fighters, possibly coupled with retiring of multiple older squadrons, could provide the most cost effective means for Iran to modernise its aerial warfare capabilities. Such an approach would be far from unprecedented. Russia and Vietnam both cut the size of their fighter fleets in the Cold War’s aftermath due to budgetary constraints, but invested in small numbers of elite air superiority fighters to provide a qualitative deterrent rather than a quantitative one.

Thus both retained a backbone of costly heavyweight fighters based on the Su-27 design, the Su-57’s fourth generation predecessor, but retired large numbers of cheaper and lighter platforms such as the MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-29. Iran’s financial circumstances make such path highly attractive.

Perhaps the only fighter on offer for export which is capable of providing the capabilities Iran will require is the Russian Su-57 next generation air superiority fighter, which entered serial production in July 2019 and is currently being marketed to clients worldwide.

While an order for a full strength squadron can be expected to set Iran’s armed forces back by at least $3 billion, and operational costs of the new aircraft will be high (though perhaps lower than the F-14s already in service), the fighters will provide a considerable advantage over those deployed by rival states and ensure that Iran retains a qualitative advantage to compensate for its vast quantitative disadvantages.

The cost would be similar to that of three S-400 regiments, but the contribution two dozen Su-57 fighters could make to Iran’s defences – equipped with hypersonic air to air missiles and next generation avionics and electric warfare systems – would arguably be greater.

The fighters will be able to engage adversaries at all attitudes including very low ones, a weakness of air defence systems such as the S-400, and can also potentially be used to provide air support and project power beyond Iran’s borders in a way ground based systems cannot.

While investment in cheaper fighters such as the Su-30SM, J-10C or even the JF-17 would allow Iran to invest in more squadrons, these aircraft do not retain the qualitative advantages needed to deter and if necessary engage the more numerous fourth generation fleets deployed by the U.S. and its allies – thus arguably providing a far less cost effective contribution to Iran’s defence.

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Author: Military Watch Magazine

Original title: Tipping the Balance in the Middle East: Why the 2020s Could Bring Russian Next Generation Fighters to Iran
Source: Military Watch Magazine

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BGM`s editorial stance.