Saturday, September 09, 2006

Iran's New Saegheh Fighter Enters Service

Defense Industry Daily:
There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in some quarters over the recent announcement by the Iranian news agency IRNA. It quoted the commander of the Iranian army General Attollah Salehi as saying their new indigeous Saegheh [DID: "thunder" or "lightning", reports vary] aircraft is "similar to the F-18 fighter jet, but it is more capable and has been manufactured domestically... designed, remodeled, optimized and made more capable by our engineers... no country has aided us in its production." Reports are also noting Iran's claim that it is developing a 5th generation "Shafagh" stealth fighter, oddly enough without appropriate laughter or ridicule.

Readers may recall past Iranian claims re: "stealth" flying boats that obviously used stealth-killing propellers and other such nonsense. Perhaps we can help shed a more sober and reasoned light on this new development... READ MORE

The official FARS news agency article that touted the new aircraft as "more difficult to pick up on the radar systems compared with the normal version due to its higher maneuverability" was especially funny. The Saegeheh must be something special to be able to out-maneuver radar beams traveling near the speed of light.

Risible claims aside, there is evidence that Iran has built a more effective domestic manufacturing base for aircraft and missile spares and modifications than they are commonly given credit for, in order to keep their existing fleet flying and armed. Readers may recall DID's citation of Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop's books "Iranian F-14 Units In Combat" and their more comprehensive but poorer publishing quality work "Iran-Iraq War in the Air 1980-1988," which provide information along these lines. Their original reporting re: Iran's ability to keep its F-14 fleet flying throughout the Iran-Iraq war and beyond, and adaptations like modifying US-made Hawk SAMS into air-air weapons, are useful indicators.

The ability to modify and upgrade existing aircraft would be a natural development from that base. True indigenous production of the kind Iran is claiming, on the other hand, is a difficult endeavour indeed. Taiwan's experience with their F-CK fighters is instructive as a data point, and exemplifies the difficulties and trade-offs that even a more advanced nation with limited access to global suppliers faces. India's experience trying to develop its Kaveri engines for the HAL Tejas lightweight fighter is also worth pondering.

Instead, the general consensus among more informed observers is that Iran's new fighter is a modified F-5E Tiger II fighter. the F-5E was an early 1970s era low-cost export fighter update of the 1960s-era F-5A fighter/ T-38 supersonic trainer, and it proved very popular with US allies. While Northrop Grumman's F-5 page doesn't mention Iran as an F-5 customer, the Shah's air force most certainly was.

Twin tails, wings mounted above the intakes with the addition of leading edge strakes, and new avionics would appear to be the major modifications. The reports were careful not to tout new engines or the ability to fire medium-range missiles, for instance, and barring Russian assistance a radar that would be on par with even the AN/APG-65 of the 1980s vintage F/A-18As is highly unlikely.

That last question is an important one, because the addition of the Kopyo radars to India's upgraded MiG-21 'Bisons', which allowed them to fire R-77/AA-12 "AMRAAMski" medium-range missiles, turned them into very effective interceptors when used in conjunction with AWACS assets during the COPE India exercises. The Sageheh, however, doesn't appear to reach even the level of its MiG-21 'Bison' contemporaries, let alone the bragged-of F/A-18.

The real result would appear to be an F-5E fighter with slightly improved avionics and improved "low and slow" flight characteristics, but not much more. Iran's ability to modify and/or replace their F-5 E/F fighters and F-5B trainers is not entirely useless, as it will help them bolster their sagging force structure. Nevertheless, comparing the resulting aircraft to even an F/A-18A Hornet would appear to be just more of the usual bluster and overstretch as the clock ticks down on Iran's nuclear program and its leadership's subsequent plans.

In other news, Iran is also boasting about developing a "2,000 pound guided bomb." DID would remind our readers that America was successfully using 2,000 pound GBU-10 Paveway laser-guided bombs in Vietnam against targets like the Doumer Bridge back in 1972.

Addendum and Additional Reading

DID recommends the Washington Institute of Near East Policy's December 2005 report by Fariborz Haghshenass for a serious analysis of Iran's two air forces (yes, TWO), which includes organizational/command issues as well as its equipment. Among other things, it clearly describes the Saegheh as "based on the F-5E, but has a twin vertical tail configuration to improve takeoff and maneuvering performance".