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Ryan Robertson

Anchor, Investigative Reporter

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International

Iran upgrading air force with jets from Russia no one else wants

Nov 30, 2023

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Ryan Robertson

Anchor, Investigative Reporter

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For the first time in more than 30 years, Iran is buying new fighter jets. Well, not new, but new to them. In addition to some fourth-generation Su-35s, Iran is buying some Mi-28 attack helicopters from Russia and training aircraft as well.

The deal was first announced a year ago, but Mehdi Farahi, Iran’s deputy defense minister, said the agreement is now finalized. A timeline for when exactly the aircraft will be delivered is still up in the air.

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The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force currently maintains a small fleet of older fighter jets that, quite frankly, wouldn’t stand a chance in modern air combat. So, even though the Su-35 is considered by many to be the most over-hyped fourth-generation aircraft on the market, they will still be the most advanced fighters Iran’s air force has ever flown.

Russia touts its flankers as “fourth-generation plus plus” multi-role fighters; supposedly superior to the U.S.-made F-16.

Su-35s are fast and highly maneuverable. They can carry a fairly extensive amount of armament and can operate at day or night in most weather conditions.

A skilled pilot flying a flanker would present a challenge to another fourth-generation aircraft, but they are not on the same level. And Su-35s don’t hold a candle next to fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 or F-35.

More than one aerospace expert called the Su-35’s sensors and radars the “least capable” in its class.

An analysis from 2020 showed the fighter’s maximum targeting range was around just 155 miles. The mapping feature alone on the F-16’s radar has a greater range than that. And the targeting systems on fifth-gen fighters, like the ones flown by the U.S. and Israel, can engage targets beyond the visible horizon.

Even though Russia hasn’t officially confirmed the deal with Iran, it’s believed the planes being bought were originally built for Egypt’s air force.

In 2018, Egypt ordered 24 Su-35s, a deal at the time worth $2 billion. But Egypt withdrew from the agreement after the U.S. threatened sanctions. The planes were still made, however, and apparently now have a new home.

Egypt isn’t the only country to back out of a deal to buy Su-35s from Russia over the last decade. The United Arab Emirates thought about buying some but went with the French-made Rafales instead.

Algeria, Indonesia, Turkey, and Vietnam all showed some initial interest in flying flankers, and all ended up with something else.

India is still looking to upgrade its air force, but there again, the French-made Rafale appears to be the frontrunner.

And Russia can’t put all the blame on the U.S. or the West for killing those deals. The Su-35’s recent battlefield performance isn’t exactly dominant.

At least five Su-35 flankers were shot down in Ukraine by a country with a notably smaller air force. One of the downed flankers was part of the now infamous “five aircraft in five minutes” saga where a single Ukrainian PATRIOT air defense system shot down three Russian helicopters and two Russian jets in the span of just five minutes.

If Iran plans to use its newly acquired flankers against Israel, which is a growing possibility considering the condition of the Middle East, the fight would be short lived. Israel has plenty of modern air defense systems, including PATRIOT missile batteries, which will make quick work of the older Russian aircraft.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS IRAN IS BUYING NEW FIGHTER JETS. WELL, NOT NEW, BUT NEW TO THEM. IN ADDITION TO SOME 4TH GEN Su-35s, IRAN IS BUYING SOME Mi-28 ATTACK HELICOPTERS FROM RUSSIA AND TRAINING AIRCRAFT AS WELL.

THE DEAL WAS FIRST ANNOUNCED A YEAR AGO, BUT IRAN’S DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS IT’S NOW FINALIZED. A TIMELINE FOR WHEN EXACTLY THE AIRCRAFT WILL BE DELIVERED IS STILL UP IN THE AIR.

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN AIR FORCE CURRENTLY MAINTAINS A SMALL FLEET OF OLDER FIGHTER JETS THAT, QUITE FRANKLY, WOULDN’T STAND A CHANCE IN MODERN AIR COMBAT. SO, EVEN THOUGH THE Su-35 IS CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE THE MOST OVER-HYPED FOURTH GENERATION AIRCRAFT ON THE MARKET, THEY WILL STILL BE THE MOST ADVANCED FIGHTERS IRAN’S AIR FORCE HAS EVER FLOWN.

RUSSIA TOUTS ITS FLANKERS AS FOURTH GENERATION PLUS PLUS MULTI-ROLE FIGHTERS. SUPPOSEDLY SUPERIOR TO THE US MADE F-16. Su-35s ARE FAST, AND HIGHLY MANEUVERABLE. THEY CAN CARRY A FAIRLY EXTENSIVE AMOUNT OF ARMAMENT AND CAN OPERATE DAY OR NIGHT IN MOST WEATHER CONDITIONS. A SKILLED PILOT FLYING A FLANKER WOULD PRESENT A CHALLENGE TO ANOTHER FOURTH GENERATION AIRCRAFT, BUT THEY ARE NOT ON THE SAME LEVEL. AND Su-35s DON’T HOLD A CANDLE NEXT TO FIFTH GEN FIGHTERS LIKE THE F-22 OR F-35.

MORE THAN ONE AEROSPACE EXPERT CALLED THE Su-35’s SENSORS AND RADARS THE LEAST CAPABLE IN ITS CLASS. AN ANALYSIS FROM 2020 SHOWED THE FIGHTER’S MAXIMUM TARGETING RANGE WAS JUST 155 MILES. THE MAPPING FEATURE ALONE ON THE F-16’s RADAR HAS A GREATER RANGE THAN THAT. AND THE TARGETING SYSTEMS ON FIFTH GEN FIGHTERS, LIKE THE ONES FLOWN BY THE U.S. AND ISRAEL, CAN ENGAGE TARGETS BEYOND THE VISIBLE HORIZON.

EVEN THOUGH RUSSIA HASN’T OFFICIALLY CONFIRMED THE DEAL WITH IRAN, IT’S BELIEVED THE PLANES BEING BOUGHT WERE ORIGINALLY BUILT FOR EGYPT’S AIR FORCE. IN 2018, EGYPT ORDERED 24 Su-35s, A DEAL AT THE TIME WORTH $2 BILLION. BUT EGYPT WITHDREW FROM THE AGREEMENT AFTER THE U.S. THREATENED SANCTIONS. THE PLANES WERE STILL MADE, HOWEVER, AND APPARENTLY NOW HAVE A NEW HOME.

EGYPT ISN’T THE ONLY COUNTRY TO BACK OUT OF A DEAL TO BUY Su-35s FROM RUSSIA OVER THE LAST DECADE. THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES THOUGHT ABOUT BUYING SOME BUT WENT WITH THE FRENCH-MADE RAFALES INSTEAD. ALGERIA, INDONESIA, TURKEY, AND VIETNAM ALL SHOWED SOME INITIAL INTEREST IN FLYING FLANKERS, AND ALL ENDED UP WITH SOMETHING ELSE.

INDIA IS STILL LOOKING TO UPGRADE ITS AIR FORCE, BUT THERE AGAIN, THE FRENCH-MADE RAFALE APPEARS TO BE THE FRONTRUNNER.

AND RUSSIA CAN’T PUT ALL THE BLAME ON THE U.S. OR THE WEST FOR KILLING THOSE DEALS. THE Su-35’s RECENT BATTLEFIELD PERFORMANCE ISN’T EXACTLY DOMINANT.

AT LEAST FIVE Su-35 FLANKERS WERE SHOT DOWN IN UKRAINE, BY A COUNTRY WITH A NOTABLY SMALLER AIR FORCE. ONE OF THE DOWNED FLANKERS WAS PART OF THE NOW INFAMOUS ‘FIVE AIRCRAFT IN FIVE MINUTES’ SAGA WHERE A SINGLE UKRAINIAN PATRIOT AIR DEFENSE SYSTEM SHOT DOWN THREE RUSSIAN HELICOPTERS AND TWO RUSSIAN JETS IN THE SPAN OF JUST FIVE MINUTES.

IF IRAN PLANS TO USE ITS NEWLY ACQUIRED FLANKERS AGAINST ISRAEL, WHICH IS A GROWING POSSIBILITY CONSIDERING THE CONDITION OF THE MIDDLE EAST, THE FIGHT WOULD BE SHORT LIVED. ISRAEL HAS PLENTY OF MODERN AIR DEFENSE SYSTEMS, INCLUDING PATRIOT MISSILE BATTERIES, WHICH WILL MAKE QUICK WORK OF THE OLDER RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT.