Procurement: A Bit Of Recycled Reality


November 9, 2019: In October Iran showed off its new Yasin jet trainer, with video of its first flight. Western aviation experts quickly pointed out that this aircraft seemed identical to the Kowsar jet trainer prototype that was shown, on the ground, in 2017. Kowsar had been mentioned as early as 2014 with claims that it would take its first flight in 2015. Rather than deny it, as they usually do, Iranian air force officials admitted that it was the same aircraft that had been given a new name. In response to comments about Kowsar/Yasin looking like one of the aging American F-5 fighters Iran still has, the response was along the lines of “yes but so what.”

Actually the Kowsar/Yasin was similar to several jet trainers that used the F-5 design as a base for developing a new jet trainer. In this case, the Iranians again came clean and admitted that the basic design was based on the F-5 but that the new aircraft was locally built with Iranian developed and made components. With a modern glass (lots of touch screens replacing all the traditional dials and other analog indicators) cockpit and exotic electronics the “100 percent built-in Iran” claim was hard to accept. This is particularly true of the claim that the Yasin engines are locally developed and built turbojets similar to those found in the F-5. That would be the GE J85, a 1950s design that entered service in 1960 and was regularly updated and continued in production (12,000 total) until 1988. Thousands of these engines are still in use and given Iranian prowess at smuggling in old military tech, their new jet engine are more likely reconditioned (in Iran) J85s.

In 2016 Iran announced the establishment of the Owj jet engine manufacturing company and claimed it would ship its first locally built engine in 2018. It would be possible for Iran to develop and produce its own jet engines but that would be very difficult as few nations can do this. The most recent contender is China which has been at it for several decades and is not yet able to produce world (U.S., Europe and Russia) class military jets. The Chinese are getting close but they have a much larger industrial base than Iran and have not been heavily sanctioned since the 1980s.

Iran has been passing off reconditioned foreign military tech as its own for years. For the modern electronics in the Yasin it is much easier to take modern commercial electronics and put it to military use. This is something that is easier to get away with and is called dual (commercial-military) use technology. Yet Iran prefers to put a “100 percent Iranian” on these things. Every year the Iranian media features several new weapons described as locally designed and manufactured. 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 usually 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 system "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. 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 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 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.

When the sanctions were lifted in late 2015 Iran was under internal and external pressure to get some of these wonder weapons into use and offer them for export. We will have to wait to see how the Iranians handle that. 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. 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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