Iran has its eye on Russia's SU-35 fighter jets. Image: Twitter

Iran has confirmed plans to purchase Su-35 fighter jets from Russia to modernize its aging air force. The planned procurement would mark one of isolated Tehran’s most significant defense purchases since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iranian Air Force Commander Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi announced that purchasing Su-35 fighters is on the agenda of the air force, though the final decision rests with the army and Army General Staff Headquarters, Tehran Times reported this week.

Iran has announced a 64 new aircraft requirement, of which 24 were supposed to come from Egypt but remain undelivered due to US pressure, according to Iran International.  

The planned Su-35 purchase comes soon after Iran supplied combat drones to Russia to replace combat losses and fill in gaps in Moscow’s drone capabilities that have been exposed in Ukraine war. 

Asia Times has reported that although Russia has multiple drone projects, its immature drone industry, limited availability of advanced technologies and lack of high-end operational models compared to low-end ones have hampered its progress.

The potential sale may be an act of reciprocity and could deepen the strategic partnership between the two sides, both of which face Western sanctions and growing international isolation.

According to United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), Russia’s state-owned aerospace consortium, the Su-35 is a thoroughly-modernized variant of the Su-27 air superiority fighter. It classifies the Su-35 as a 4++ generation fighter that combines 5th generation technologies on a 4th generation airframe.

UAC notes that the Su-35 is an air superiority fighter designed for beyond-visual-range (BVR) and within-visual-range (WVR) air combat. It also has long-range air-to-surface strike capability against ground and naval targets.

UAC also mentions that the Su-35 has the qualities of a modern fighter, combining super-maneuverability, improved active and passive sensors, high supersonic speed, long range, a wide range of armaments, current electronic warfare capabilities, reduced radar signature and increased survivability.

Russia’s sale of 24 advanced Su-35 jets in 2015 marked a warming of ties with China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Oleg Belyakov

If Iran’s purchase goes through, which is still in question, the Su-35s may prove to be the most crucial modernization in decades for its aging air force, which now relies on pre-1979 Western combat aircraft and older Chinese and Russian models. Iran’s indigenous aerospace program, meanwhile, has met with mixed results.

Its most capable fighter is the F-14 Tomcat, which it first acquired in 1976 to intercept Soviet MiG-25R Foxbat reconnaissance flights over Iran. The F-14’s superior flight characteristics, powerful AWG-9 radar and AIM-54 Phoenix BVR missiles gave it much longer engagement ranges and better maneuverability than the F-15 Eagle at the time, notes former Iranian Air Force pilots cited by the Aviation Geek Club.

Iran acquired 79 F-14s before the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the aircraft proved their worth during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Although the Iran-Iraq War and sanctions have taken a toll on Iran’s F-14 fleet, defense analyst David Axe notes in The National Interest that Iran’s 40 or so surviving F-14 Tomcats are still among the best combat aircraft in the Middle East.

He also notes that in the absence of US spare parts, maintenance and technical assistance, Iran has nonetheless upgraded its F-14 fleet with new radars, radios and navigation systems while adding compatibility to Russian-made R73 BVR missiles, US-made Hawk surface-to-air missiles and, through reverse-engineering, America’s AIM-54 Phoenix radar-guided, long-range air-to-air missile as the Fakour 90.

But despite these upgrades, Iran’s combat aircraft are old, with some airframes more than 40-years-old. Paul Iddon notes in Forbes that these airframes’ age is a primary cause of accidents in the Iranian Air Force.

He also notes that the last time Iran acquired modern combat aircraft was in the 1990s when it received MiG-29A Fulcrum fighters from Russia. Before that, Iran acquired Chinese F-7s during the Iran-Iraq War and copies of the Soviet MiG-21. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iran confiscated Iraq’s MiG-29s and French-made Mirage F1s when their pilots sought asylum to avoid capture or being killed by coalition forces.

However, Axe notes Iranian pilots are reportedly dissatisfied with Chinese combat aircraft, noting that back in 1997 and 1998 Iran evaluated China’s F-8 fighter and rejected it. He said that even without spares and maintenance, the F-14s were still superior to the newer Chinese-made F-8s, with Iddon noting Iran’s similar sentiments against Iran’s MiG-29As after testing them against its F-14s.

Iran’s F-14s are aging fast. Image: Facebook

To be sure, China’s aerospace industry has improved considerably since then, potentially surpassing Russia in some areas. Asia Times has cited a Chinese defense insider who said that long range is the only advantage the Su-35 has over contemporary Chinese fighters such as the J-16 and J-10, with the Su-35’s radar, navigation system and all other electronic components comparatively inferior.

Defense analyst Peter Suciu notes in 1945 that Russia has lost two Su-35 squadrons since it invaded Ukraine in February, raising hard new questions about the type’s combat capabilities.

He also mentions that the Su-35 has encountered reliability problems in Chinese and Russian services, which can potentially carry over to Iran should it acquire the aircraft. Moreover, sanctions on Russia have hobbled its defense industry, potentially affecting its ability to deliver Su-35s to Iran.

While Iran may prefer to acquire newer Chinese fighters such as the J-16 and J-10, China may be reluctant to sell its combat aircraft to Iran given the possible geostrategic implications of such an arms sale to its Arab partners in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, notes defense analyst Abdullah Al Junaid as cited in Eurasian Times.

Over the years, Iran has tried to produce its own fighter jets, though with mixed results. In 1997, Iran unveiled its domestic Azarakhsh fighter, which defense website Global Security notes was made by cobbling together parts from Iran’s US-made F-5 light fighters, Iranian reverse-engineered parts and Russian avionics.

In 2007, Iran followed up this design by unveiling the Saeqeh, an upgraded twin-tailed variant of the Azarakhsh. Military Watch notes that while the Saeqeh is inferior to the F-14 and other heavier fighters, its F-5 base design’s simplicity allows Iranian engineers to reverse-engineer the type, effectively indigenizing the F-5 jet.

However, the design limitations of the F-5’s airframe mean that its Iranian derivatives will likely be the low-end component of a high-low fighter force mix, with heavier fighters such as the F-14, J-16, J-10 or Su-35 being the high-end component.

Iran’s efforts to acquire the Su-35 may be driven ultimately by the pressing need to counter Israeli air incursions into its airspace, which can threaten to strike its nuclear facilities. Axe notes that Iran still entrusts the defense of its nuclear sites to its aging F-14 fighters, which are outclassed by increasingly advanced US drones monitoring Iran’s nuclear program.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. Photo: AFP / Jack Guez

Besides US drones snooping on its nuclear sites, Iran has Israeli air incursions to worry about attacking its nuclear site. This month, the Times of Israel reported that Israeli F-35 fighters had penetrated Iranian airspace multiple times from June to July, evading Russian and Iranian air defenses.

The source also noted that drones and aerial refueling tankers have participated in the drills, with the US and Israel carrying out covert exercises in the Red Sea simulating air and sea strikes against Iran.

Su-35s thus may be Iran’s best bet to modernize and improve its air force, despite the performance issues, technical problems and other challenges facing Russia’s defense industry.