Military Watch Magazine — June 27, 2018
Iran has, despite its lack of air superiority capabilities, continued to establish itself as a major regional power, and the air forces of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Western partners have been key assets to hold the expansion of Iranian influence in check. Should Iran induct an air superiority fleet of its own, however, acquiring high-performance heavy fighters from Russia or China, it could well be key to shifting the balance of power in the Middle East firmly in Tehran’s favour. A number of sources have reported since the signing of the JCPOA that Iran is seeking advanced Russian air superiority fighters to provide its air fleet with much-needed modernisations. Some sources have indicated that Iranian pilots, and even members of the Iranian aligned Lebanese militia Hezbollah, have already begun training in Russia to operate such advanced combat aircraft. Given Russia’s close defence cooperation with both Iran and Hezbollah, which has expanded significantly since their close coordination in the war in Syria against a number of Western-backed insurgent groups, this remains highly plausible.
Iran has acquired a number of advanced weapons systems from Russia and the Soviet Union before it to defend its airspace in the past. Most recently this included the S-300 air defence system, a defensive weapon not covered by UN restrictions. The fighter platform which Iran has reportedly shown particular interest in is the Su-30 air superiority fighter, an advanced variant of the Su-27 Flanker with air to air combat capabilities far surpassing those of the older Israeli and Saudi F-15C fighters. Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan reportedly paid a visit to Moscow in February 2016 to discuss the potential acquisition of the Russian fighters, and a deal to acquire the fighters has quite possibly already been reached. It remains in the interests of both Russia and Iran not to confirm reports of any planned deliveries of such fighters, at least until 2020 when the first aircraft can be dispatched, both to deny Iranian adversaries time to prepare themselves for the sale and to avoid unnecessary pressure from the Western bloc on both states.
An Iranian Defence Ministry source stated regarding the Iranian acquisition of the Su-30 around the time of the visit by General 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. Minister Dehghan 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.” With Iran already fielding a vast light fighter fleet, the heavy Su-30 would fulfil a highly complementary role for the air force.
While Russia has since inducting the Su-30 in the 1990s developed more capable air supercity platforms, including the Su-35 ”˜4++ generation’ super manoeuvrable fighter and the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter, Iran’s decision to acquire the older platform is almost certainly a result of the country’s financial constraints. The Iranian military is allocated one of the lowest budgets relative to national GDP of any country in the Middle East, and Iranian defence expenditure is dwarfed by those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and even the United Arab Emirates, and at an estimated $7 billion per year is closer to the defence spending of Qatar ($5 billion) than it is to any of these major Western-aligned military spenders. The Su-30, despite its age, is more than capable of surpassing the most advanced heavy fighters exported by Western powers – with the F-15 dating back over 40 years to 1976 and considerably inferior in its combat performance.
The variant of the Su-30 Iran is set to acquire remains in question. High-end variants of the Su-30 such as the MKII fielded by Venezuela, China and Vietnam or the MKI and MKK fielded by India and China respectively are significantly more costly than cheaper and more basic designs such as the Su-30K. The more basic platforms could be acquired in larger numbers and would put a lesser strain on the Iranian defence budget, while still providing the country with a superior aircraft to the F-15C. The fighters lack the cutting edge thrust vectoring systems, avionics and a number of other cutting-edge features deployed by more advanced variants. Considering the quality of Israeli Air Force pilots, some of the most capable in the world who even in the older F-15C could seriously challenge their Iranian counterparts flying a Russian Sukhoi platform, Iran may well seek a more capable variant of the Su-30 to maximise its technological advantage and better guarantee a favourable outcome in a potential conflict with its adversaries. Whether Iran will find it easier to contract for the licence production of a more basic Su-30 variant which lacks cutting-edge technologies could also be a significant factor influencing the type of fighter eventually acquired. The fact that Iran is reportedly seeking joint production of the aircraft, however, indicates that the country needs more than just a small fighter contingent, and is set to acquire the Su-30 in significant numbers. With these fighters able to fly long-range air support missions across the Middle East, from Syria, Lebanon and the Golan Heights to Saudi Arabia and much of the Persian Gulf, means that whatever Iran decides regarding its future acquisitions, it is set to have very significant implications for the Middle Eastern balance of power.