Iran might buy medium or high class fighters. Here are the five options

MOSCOW, (BM) – A ban put in place by the United Nations Security Council on the sales of offensive weapons to Iran, which have included a range of armaments from heavy surface warships to strike fighters, is set to expire in October 2020 under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

Iran’s Air Force is currently in poor shape to defend the country, and no new classes of combat jet have been acquired since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Iranian fleet is today comprised overwhelmingly of Vietnam War era F-4D/E and F-5E American fighters – with two Soviet MiG-29A squadrons, a single Chinese J-7 squadron and a number of former Iraqi jets acquired during the Gulf War such as the Mirage F1 and Su-22 being the only notable exceptions.

Iran also deploys early fourth generation F-14A heavyweight air superiority fighters in two squadrons, which have been heavily modernised domestically and today represent the only aircraft equipped with modern munitions for air to air combat.

With tensions between Iran and the United States remaining high, and relations with many heavily armed U.S. client states in the region such as the United Arab Emirates and Israel also poor, an acquisition of high end fighter jets in at least some numbers is likely to at least be considered to modernise the country’s fleet.

While Iran previously tried to acquire modern combat jets from Russia in the 1990s, to add to the MiG-29 and Su-24 jets it had acquired from the Soviet Union, post-Soviet Russia notably refused to provide such weaponry under Western pressure.

As the Russian leadership has changed since, and Moscow’s relations with the Western Bloc have deteriorated, the country is likely to be willing to apply combat jets to Iran – including medium and possibly high end designs.

The emergence of other major non-Western suppliers since the 1990s has further improved Iran’s position should it seek to modernise its fleet, and provides a wider range of options.

An assessment of the five leading classes of fighter Iran is expected to show an interest in, based on their capabilities and the Iranian Air Force’s requirements, is given below:


Possibly the ideal fighter for Iran, the Russian MiG-35 ‘4++ generation’ medium weight fighter will introduce many next generation technologies to the Iranian fleet – from powerful AESA radars and state of the art electronic warfare systems to three dimensional thrust vectoring engines and new R-37M hypersonic air to air missiles.

The fighter is loosely based on the MiG-29 design, and can use much of the same maintenance infrastructure which will reduce the logistical burden on Iran’s already overly diverse fleet. The MiG-35 is approximately 80% less costly to operate than the MiG-29, meaning Iran may in the long run reduce costs by phasing out existing MiG-29 squadrons for replacement with the MiG-35 – alongside further acquisitions to form new squadrons.

The MiG-35 entered service in the Russian Air Force in 2019, and its advanced avionics, excellent flight performance and unique armaments allow it to challenge much heavier classes of fighter including Israeli and Saudi F-15 Eagles.

What the MiG-35 lacks in size and range, it compensates for in sophistication with three dimensional thrust vectoring engines, state of the art avionics and electronic warfare systems, and an air to air engagement range of 400km – almost four times that of the AIM-120C which equips the vast majority of U.S., Saudi and Israeli fighters.

A leading attraction of the aircraft is its cost effectiveness and low lifetime operational cost – meaning Iran will be able to modernise more of its fighter squadrons without a large long term investment.


Iranian interest in the Su-30, a heavyweight twin seat fighter derived from the Soviet Su-27 air superiority platform, has long been rumoured.

An Iranian Defence Ministry source stated over five years ago regarding the Iranian acquisition of the Su-30, around the time of the visit by Defense Minister Hussein Dehghan to Russia: “Minister Dehgan will also discuss the delivery of Su-30 airplanes because the Defence Ministry believes the Iranian Air Force needs this type of plane. We’ve moved far in these discussions of purchases and I think that during the upcoming visit a contract will be signed.”

This was also reported by Russian state media. The minister stated shortly before his trip to Russia, specifically citing the Su-30: “Today we need to pay attention to air force and aircraft and we seek to seal a deal with the Russians upon which we will have partnership in the construction and manufacturing of the jet fighter.”

The Su-30SM is the latest and most capable variant of the Su-30 to enter service, and benefits from two dimensional thrust vectoring engines, a heavyweight high performance airframe and the ability to carry a heavy payload and large radar. The fighter is still less sophisticated than ‘4++ generation’ Russian designs such as the Su-35 and MiG-35, but has a much higher operational cost than the latter.

The fighter could be ideal to project power across the Middle East, and can comfortably outmatch most Saudi and Israeli jets as well as the U.S. Navy’s F-18E Super Hornets while also deploying sophisticated standoff cruise missiles for anti shipping and air to ground roles.

For a defensive role, however, the shorter ranged MiG-35 may be a more costs effective purchase – particularly given the logistical burden of operating this new and much heavier class of combat jet.


At the cheaper end of the spectrum, the Sino-Pakistani JF-17 Block 2 still represents a significant improvement over existing Iranian fighters – and could provide a cost effective successor to the J-7, F-5 and F-4 with a similarly low operational cost.

The fighter’s access to modern sensors and PL-12 long range active radar guided air to air missiles could make it an attractive option – although a qualitative gap will remain with higher end rival fighters such as the U.S. Navy’s F-18E Super Hornets and the United Arab Emirates’ F-16E Fighting Falcons.

Given that Iran lacks any active radar guided missile equipped squadrons, with the exception of its F-14s, the JF-17 would be a welcome’s addition despite its limitations. The JF-17 Block 3 is likely to be more attractive however, and integrates a larger and significantly more powerful AESA radar, superior engines and likely new PL-15 air to air missiles among other features.

The fighter has yet to enter service, but could likely begin deliveries to Iran before 2025 given the fast delivery schedule of the JF-17 program. Access to the PL-15 in particular could make this an attractive option – allowing Iran to engage potential adversaries beyond their own engagement ranges up to 200km away.


China began to offer the J-10C ‘4++ generation’ single engine fighter for export from 2019 – representing the most sophisticated Chinese combat jet marketed abroad The fighter has many similar capabilities to the Russian Su-35 and MiG-35, including thrust vectoring engines, infra red sensors, a new generation of air to air missiles – in this case the PL-15 rather than the R-37M – and next generation radars.

The fighter is from a lighter weight range than the Russian Su-35 and MiG-35 with a single rather than a twin engine configuration, and was developed as a complement to the heavyweight J-16 and J-20 in Chinese service all of which are equipped with powerful AESA radars.

The J-10C could be seen as a direct competitor to the MiG-35, and while lighter and less costly it does benefit from a stealthier airframe, application of stealth coatings and much more investment in research and development. This means more upgrades will likely be available for the J-10 over its service life relative to the Russian designs.

The J-10C’s main disadvantage to the MiG-35, other than slightly lower manoeuvrability, is its shorter air to air engagement range – with the PL-15 having approximately half the range of the R-37M. The PL-15 can still outrange all missiles currently deployed by American made fighters, and China’s much larger investment in developing long ranged air to air missiles relative to Russia could see a more sophisticated successor emerge in the near future which will outperform the R-37.

The J-10C’s combat performance will be sufficient to take on the vast majority of rivals from Israeli and Saudi F-15Cs – which though heavier are much older – to American Super Hornets. Iran currently operates Chinese J-7 fighters, and has shown considerable interest in Chinese designs in the past while also receiving Chinese assistance to upgrade its Cold War era American fighters with new munitions.

These are among several fields of high level defence cooperation between the two states, which could serve as a foundation for major arms sales.


Russia has offered the Su-57 to potential foreign clients from 2019, when it unveiled the Su-57E at the MAKS airshow, and the aircraft represents the highest end non-Western combat jet available for export today.

The fighter’s American and Chinese analogues the F-22 and J-20 have been reserved for domestic use only, but Russia’s far more constrained defence budget has led it to seek to share the costs of the program with foreign clients – which could also facilitate a much needed expansion of production lines.

A contract for the aircraft is estimated at $2.8 billion for every two dozen fighters, far more than the Su-35 at $2 billion or the Su-30SM for £1.2 billion for the same number. This means an Iranian purchase, if pursued, would likely be restricted to a very small number of aircraft.

Despite this, the Su-57 may prove to be the most cost effective option for Iran – providing a considerable performance advantage over all rival fighters in the Middle East with the exception of the U.S. Air Force’s small contingent of F-22 Raptors.

The Su-57’s advanced capabilities allow them to engage fourth generation fleets many times their size, and the considerable qualitative disparity which Iran would gain would be a game changer for the regional balance of power.

The Su-57 benefits from a high endurance, stealth and access to a range of standoff munitions, including air launched ballistic missiles, which allow in to project power across the region in an unprecedented way and provide air support to proxies and allies from Syria and Lebanon to Iraq, Yemen and beyond.

As a defensive interceptor, equipped with a large arsenal of R-37M missiles and a large AESA radar, the fighter would serve as a serious deterrent to possible violations of Iranian airspace. It remains uncertain whether Russia would be willing to provide Iran with the Su-57, with such a sale likely to provoke a considerable response including an escalation of the U.S. Military presence in the region and additional Western and Israeli pressure on Moscow.


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Editorial team
Source: Military Watch

The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.