Morale: Iranian Imaginary Weapons

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September 1, 2020: In July 2020 Iran announced some new weapons, one of them being an unnamed laser guided missile launched from rebuilt 1970s era American AH-1J helicopter gunship. Details were scarce but the new laser guided missile appears to be a laser guided version of the Iranian copy of the American TOW wire-guided ATGM (Anti-tank guided missile). The Iranian copy of TOW, the Toofan, first appeared in 2000 and by 2010 the Iranians had also copied some of the most recent American TOW upgrades. Iran first obtained TOW in the 1970s by purchase and the last time in 1985-6 as part of a secret (for a while) U.S. government deal to gain the freedom of American civilians kidnapped by pro-Iranian Islamic terrorists in Lebanon. By the 1990s these 2,000 TOW missiles had been used or had become too old to be reliable. Normally TOW missiles have a 15-year shelf life. It’s less than that if you do not have access to the proper maintenance equipment and spare parts. The TOWs that Iran received via Israel in the 1980s were already a few years old when Iran got them. The TOW technology is not all that advanced and Iran got foreign help (official and otherwise) that enabled them to produce the first TOW clone, Toofan 1. By now the Iranians are up to Toofan 5, which is apparently close in performance to the TOW 2B.

There is also a wireless (laser guided) version of Toofan and a version optimized for use against helicopters. According to the July announcement this laser guided Toofan has been adapted for use by the few Toufan (AH-1J) helicopter gunships Iran revealed in 2013 as “Toufan 2” with improved electronics and a laser designator for laser guided weapons.

The Toufan 1 was revealed in 2010 and Iran claimed to have refurbished and upgraded at least a dozen of their remaining AH-1J helicopter gunships with new components. The pre-revolution Iranian monarchy bought and received over 200 AH-1Js in the 1970s. Most were lost during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. By the late 1990s only about 70 of these Iranian AH-1Js still existed and fewer and fewer of them were operational. That’s when Iran began hiring local engineers and technicians to refurbish these older weapons. By 2010 10-20 AH-1Js had been rebuilt as Toufan 1 and a few years later two or three Toufan 1s were upgraded to Toufan 2.

Iran had been under a growing number of arms sanctions since the 1980s and they had a lot of unemployed engineers and  scientists plus all those aging American weapons the monarchy had purchased in the 1970s. Few of these new “Iranian designed and manufactured” weapons were built because that was expensive and often required a lot of expensive components that had to be smuggled in. This weapons development did produce a local capability to maintain older weapons and refurbish some of them for years of additional service. There was also the propaganda value, especially internally. Here were Iranian specialists developing and producing these new weapons. Over the last five years more and more Iranians realized this program was paid for with money that could have gone to maintain a better standard of living for all Iranians. Despite that for about two decades the program was the source of “feel good” propaganda and somewhat modern weapons.

Iran does produce lots of simpler weapons like assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars and short-range rockets. Most of the weapons development money goes into the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. Many of the mass-produced weapons are Russian or Chinese designs produced under license. That explains the second aerial weapon announced in July. This was described as the S-24, which is in fact a Russian design license built in Iran. The S-24 was described as launched from a Russian Mi-17 transport helicopter. Mi-17s can be armed and it is possible to mount one or two S-24s on the Mi-17. The S-24 is a 240mm (diameter), 235 kg (520 pound) short-range (3,000 meters) unguided rocket with a 123 kg (271 pound) warhead that often uses a proximity fuze which detonates the warhead three meters above ground for maximum blast effect. If a fragmentation warhead casing is used, the explosion releases about 4,000 metal fragments that are lethal up to 400 meters from the explosion. The S-24 is usually launched from fighter-bombers.

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 a breakthrough system "designed and manufactured in Iran." It's all rather pathetic, and began during the 1980s when Iran and Iraq were fighting a nasty war. That’s when the improvisations began and some of these hacks worked, after a fashion. For example, Iran created a longer-range SCUD missile by the simple expedient of lengthening the missile for 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 them 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 2011, Iran announced that they had put into service their first squadron of twelve Saeqeh. 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.

This all began back in 2006 when 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 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 paid and unpaid technical assistance 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). With the revival of sanctions in 2017 orders for new stuff are on hold. Recycling resumes.

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.

As long as Iran remains on good terms with China they will have access, often illegal access, to Chinese high-tech exports and even advice from Chinese manufacturers on how to produce copies of foreign designs. China has been doing it successfully since the 1980s and that has been quite profitable.

 


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