Air Weapons: Mandatory Pride

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March 24, 2018: Iran recently revealed another new, locally developed weapon that looked like a much older American model with a few modifications. The latest one is called Azarakhsh and looks like an older model American AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile with a new seeker and warhead. Azarakhsh was described as a short range (10 kilometers) air-to-ground missile that could also be used from ground vehicles. Azarakhsh was described as weighing 71 kg (155 pounds), 3.1 meters (12.1 feet) long and using a heat seeking guidance system. The rear of the Azarakhsh, and the control fins are identical to those of the 2,000 AIM-9J and P models Iran bought in the 1970s before the 1979 revolution. This new weapon appears to be another publicity stunt.

From the 1960s to the 1980s the U.S. developed but never widely used air-surface versions of the AIM-9. More recently (2009) the U.S. developed new fire control systems that make the current AIM-9X) missiles easily used against ground targets without any modifications to the missile. This is real and in use and works best if used with a “look and shoot” helmet visor. In 2007 the U.S. Air Force asked the manufacturer of the AIM-9X missile if the weapon could be adapted to hit ground targets (including armored vehicles and Iranian speedboats). The manufacturer got to work and by late 2009 conducted several successful of the modified AIM-9X. The mods apparently were mainly in the fire control software.

The AIM-9 is a heat seeking missile, and the heat sensors have become much more sensitive since the first AIM-9 entered service in the 1950s. The current versions of the missile work by detecting a heat source at the point where the pilot is looking. This is done using the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems), which allows a pilot to see, displayed on his visor, critical flight and navigation information. Sort of like a see-through computer monitor or Head Up Display. Most importantly, the pilot can turn his head towards a target, get an enemy aircraft, or ground target, into the crosshairs displayed on the visor, and fire a missile that will promptly go after target the pilot was looking at. For Sidewinder, the pilot has to be looking at something giving off enough heat to catch the attention of the missile heat sensor.

In 2009 JHMCS was already used with some air-to-ground missiles, although it was revealed that no special air-to-ground software was needed for Sidewinders fired at ground targets. Instead, the air-to-air software was modified. This is important, because one of the reasons for this mod was to give the F-15C, which carries no air-to-ground weapons (it's strictly an air-to-air fighter) some air-to-ground capability. In addition, fighter-bombers (like the F-18, F-16, F-22 and F-35) will now be able to use their air-to-air weapons, in a pinch, once all their actual air-to-ground weapons are gone.

Although developed in the 1950s, the Sidewinder has been the most effective air-to-air missile ever produced. The first Sidewinder (AIM-9B) was 3 meters (9.3 feet) long, weighed 71 kg (156 pounds), and had a max range of five kilometers. The most current model, the AIM-9X, is the same size, weighs 87 kg (191 pounds), and has a max range of over 20 kilometers. All models have a warhead weighing about 10 kg (22 pounds). The AIM-9X can go after the target from all angles, while the AIM-9B could only be used from directly behind the target. The AIM-9X is about seven times more likely to bring down the target than the AIM-9B. The 9X entered service in 2000, but the older 9M is nearly as accurate, although without the additional flexibility and capabilities.

But then there are the Iranian versions. 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 and not really able to compete when it comes to new technology developments or mass production of whatever is developed. All of this new stuff is 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 and even fewer are mass produced. It’s all feel-good propaganda for the religious dictatorship that runs Iran and its supporters.

The Iranians have become obsessed with these "propaganda weapons," especially since the government found they could get away with just hacking something together from an existing Russian or American system and proclaim it to be a breakthrough weapon "designed and manufactured in Iran." It's all rather pathetic, and it all began during the 1980s, when Iran and Iraq were fighting a nasty war. Some of the hacks worked, after a fashion. Iran created a longer range SCUD missile by the simple expedient of lengthening the missile with a larger fuel tank. This changed the flight characteristics of the missile but since these things were being fired at city size (as in Baghdad) targets, it didn't matter. Actually, the Iranians didn't really need the longer range missiles because Baghdad was pretty close to the Iranian border. Iran actually got the technology for these SCUD mods from North Korea but Iranian press releases always touted the achievement as being the work of Iranian scientists and engineers.

After 2003 the announcements became more ambitious, apparently in response to the impressive American weapons being used next door in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus in 2013 the Iranian Air Force announced that it had begun “mass production” of a new jet fighter, one that was designed and manufactured in Iran. This, according to the air force commander, means that Iran does not have to rely on foreign suppliers (all of whom are intimidated by international arms sanctions imposed on Iran). This is all a bit of dark humor because the aircraft in question was apparently the Saeqeh jet fighter. In 2012 it had been announced that three more of these had been produced and that fifteen had been delivered to the Iranian Air Force. In 2011, Iran announced that they had put into service their first squadron of twelve Saeqeh. It was in 2006 that Iran first displayed a modified American F-5 fighter and proclaimed the new "Saeqeh" as similar to the American F-18 jet fighter. Iran was apparently producing a clone of the 1960s era F-5 design, not a rival for the F-18. Their local manufacturing and international smuggling capabilities are certainly up to the task of obtaining the components needed for this. But all this is mainly a publicity stunt to reassure Iranians that, despite decades of international arms embargoes, Iran still has weapons that can defend the country.

This was not the first time Iran has run a stunt like this. But even with a redesigned tail and better electronics, the F-5 was still a low cost and low performance aircraft. The Saeqeh was not the first Iranian attempt to rebuild F-5s. In the 1990s, they built a clone of the F-5E, calling it the Azarakhsh. There were apparently four of these in service at one time and further modifications of F-5 airframes produced the Saeqeh. A new Azarakhsh missile seems to indicate that the Azarakhsh jet fighter, or at least the name, has been recycled.

The Iranians had dozens of damaged F-5s from their war with Iraq, along with many more elderly F-5s that are un-flyable or barely so. In the late 1970s Iran had nearly 300 F-5 aircraft but many were destroyed in combat with Iraq during the 1980s, or due to accidents, and most of the remainder just wore out.

The F-5E, the most recent F-5 model the Iranians had when the Islamic revolution took over in 1979, is an 11 ton aircraft, with a max speed of 1,700 kilometers an hour, and a range of some 1,400 kilometers. It was armed with two 20mm cannon and could carry about 3 tons of missiles and bombs. The Iranians had taken the basic F-5 frame and rebuilt it to hold 2 Russian engines. The Chinese did the same thing with the MiG-21 and produced the J-8 (a twin engine MiG-21) that turned out to be not worth the effort.

Although the Iranians were using Russian components (if only because these were better than Chinese ones), they probably had technical assistance (for a price) from China. The Chinese have a lot of experience reverse engineering Russian warplanes and developing variations. The Chinese are getting away from that because they finally realized that all they ended up with was a lot of crap fighters. Now they are building a new air force with expensive, and high tech, fighters imported from Russia or built under license (or just copied illegally).

Iranian weapon fantasies reached their peak in early 2013 with the announcement that they 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 as those 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 concluded that the Qaher 313 was 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 was nothing new for Iran. In fact, this sort of thing has become a staple of Iranian media. The Qaher 313 was the most ambitious fake so far. Stealth tech is not something you can recycle from decades old gear, nor is it something you can easily deceive the experts with.

Now that the sanctions are being lifted Iran will be under pressure (internal and external) to get some of these wonder weapons into use and offer them for export. It will be interesting to see how the Iranians handle that. The government just ignores those queries. Apparently Iran has handled the fantasy weapons work over to their more radical military organization. The Azarakhsh missile was introduced by an officer of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). Iranians know that you do not question or argue with the IRGC.

 


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