In early September Iran held another media event to cheer up Iranians and amuse most foreigners. As usual it was announced, with great fanfare and lots of pictures, the newest Iranian warship, the Shahid Nazeri. What was displayed was a 60 meter (180 feet) long catamaran with a small helicopter pad which was shown holding a light (under two ton) civilian helicopter. There were no visible weapons on the helicopter or the ship. The Iranians said Shahid Nazeri had a top speed of 50 kilometers an hour and could carry about a hundred passengers and crew. This was clearly a civilian design painted and presented as an unarmed warship.
A real warship of this type and design was recently (2014) put into service by Taiwan Called a Tuo Chiang class corvette it is a twin hull (catamaran) design that displaces 560 tons, is 60.4 meters long and has a top speed of 80 kilometers an hour. The crew of 41 operates several weapons systems, including 16 anti-ship missiles (8 each of Hsiung-feng 2 and 3 models) a 76mm cannon, a 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes and four 12.7mm machine-guns. The Hsiung-feng 3 is described in Taiwan as a “carrier killer.”
How do we know Shahid Nazeri was purely propaganda? We know it because the Iranians have become obsessed with these "propaganda weapons" and announcing them regularly for decades. This is because 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 during the 1980s war with Iraq. 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.
The Shahid Nazeri was not the first such propaganda weapon Iran presented this year. On August 1st they announced a number of new weapons, including a locally made UAV equipped with a communications jammer. A number of other new or improved weapons were showcased. One thing they all had in common was that none of them were new (airborne communications jammers go back to the early 1940s) and none of the more interesting ones will ever be seen in service, much less offered for export. These announcements are mainly for internal consumption. They are, in short, propaganda.
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. All of this new 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.
After 2003 the announcements became more ambitious, apparently in response to the impressive American weapons being used next door in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus by 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 is apparently producing a clone of the half century old 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 is not the first time Iran has run a stunt like this. But even with a redesigned tail and better electronics, the 1960s era F-5 is still a low cost and low performance aircraft. The Saeqeh is 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.
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 2 20mm cannon and could carry about 3 tons of missiles and bombs. The Iranians have 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 are using Russian components (if only because these are 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 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. The Qaher 313 is 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.