The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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The Iranian Stealth Fighter Scam
by James Dunnigan
February 17, 2013
Iran recently announced that it had developed a stealth fighter; the Qaher 313. It showed photos of a single engine fighter with some curious (to aeronautical engineers) features. The air intakes were too small, the airframe was similar to older (unsuccessful) American experimental designs, and the cockpit controls were the same used in one and two engine propeller driven aircraft. There was a video of the Qaher 313 in flight but nothing showing it landing or taking off. Engineers have concluded that the Qaher 313 is a crude fake and that the aircraft seen in flight was a small remote controlled model of the larger aircraft shown in a hangar. A deception like this is nothing new for Iran. In fact, this sort of thing has become a staple of Iranian media over the last decade.
Every year the Iranian media features several new weapons described as locally designed and produced. This is to improve morale among a population that knows the country has been under an international arms embargo since the 1980s. Some of the new wonder weapons announced in the last few years include a cruise missile with a 200 kilometer range and a submarine torpedo designed for shallow coastal waters. There was also a new 73mm missile that appeared to be a small, unguided rocket, albeit with a good press agent. All of this was stuff was fluff, with a bit of recycled reality to back it up. If you go back and look at the many Iranian announcements of newly developed, high tech weapons, all you find is a photo op for a prototype. Production versions of these weapons rarely show up. It’s all feel-good propaganda for the religious dictatorship that runs Iran and its supporters.
Iran has managed to develop some locally made weapons over the last three decades. For example, two years ago Iran announced that it had test fired U.S. made Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. Unlike most weapons announcements from Iran, this one was probably not propaganda. Iran, like many American allies, bought American Hawk anti-aircraft missile systems in the 1970s. The current religious dictatorship took over in 1979 and inherited a lot of American weapons that the U.S. would no longer provide spare parts or technical assistance for. Although 1950s technology, the Hawk, with a range of 25-45 kilometers, was reliable and quite effective against targets lacking a lot of countermeasures. Iran has scrounged up spare parts and managed to keep many of the Hawk systems going.
The Iranians had the 1970 version of Hawk but further improvements were made in the 80s and 90s. Iran had bought 150 launchers, and nearly a thousand missiles and other gear, sufficient to equip 16 Hawk battalions. While much of the original equipment has died of old age, there have been ample opportunities to keep some Iranian Hawks alive. That's because there are still several countries using Hawk. Over 40,000 missiles were manufactured in the last fifty years, and the U.S. only stopped using it in 2002. Since the Cold War ended in 1991, a lot of Hawk equipment has been retired. While the U.S. tried to prevent Iran from getting hold of the Cold War surplus stuff, they were not always successful. Moreover, while Hawk was cutting edge fifty years ago, that means the tech needed to keep Hawk batteries (each with six, three missile, launchers) operational today is easier to get or make locally. The big problem for Iran was obtaining the technology that enables Hawk to handle modern electronic-countermeasures. This was a frequent cause for Hawk upgrades over the last 40 years. Iran, in the meantime, has developed ways to keep up.
Iran likes to recycle 1950 military tech. For example, several years ago it announced that it had developed an armed "Karar" UAV, with a range of 1,000 kilometers. Pictures of this new weapon showed what appeared to be a copy of 1950s era American cruise missiles and target drones. These, in turn, were based on a similar weapon, the German V-1 "buzz bomb" that was used extensively in World War II to bomb London. The Iranian "Karar" UAV had the benefit of more efficient jet engines, more effective flight control hardware and software, and GPS navigation. Karar is not a wonder weapon but the Iranians are depending on a clueless international mass media, and their own citizens, to believe it is.
In the last few years Iran has announced many similar weapons, many of them originally conceived in the 1950s. There was, for example, a domestically designed and manufactured helicopter gunship and another UAV with a range of 2,000 kilometers. Recently, there have also been revelations of heavily armed speed boats, miniature submarines, new artillery rockets, and much more. Three years ago they showed off a new Iranian made jet fighter, which appeared to be a make-work project for unemployed engineers. It was a bunch of rearranged parts on an old U.S. made F-5 (which was roughly equivalent to a 1950s era MiG-21). The new fighter, like so many other Iranian weapons projects, was more for PR than for improving military power.
The Qaher 313 is the most ambitious fake so far. Stealth tech is not something you can recycle from 1950s gear, nor is it something you can easily deceive the experts with.