Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
By Anthony D’Amato, Columnist
Good news rarely comes out of the Middle East these days. On February 15, 2016, Iranian Defense Minister, Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, announced that Iran and Russia are on the verge of signing a contract to co-produce the Su-30 fighter jet. [i] Although this pronouncement did not reveal what variant of the aircraft Russia was willing to sell or how involved Iran might be in the production process, there is little doubt that the deployment of Su-30s would have an immediate impact on Iran’s air force capabilities. The threat of a regional foe acquiring a highly effective Russian-made aircraft could have real consequences for US security interests going forward.
Compared to Iran’s current antiquated air assets, the Su-30 has a longer strike range, better precision-guided munitions, and more versatile mission application. Moreover, the aircraft is capable of destroying a large number of targets in counter-sea operations and counter-air engagements.
If Iran does purchase mass quantities of this combat aircraft and develop an industrial support base for Su-30 assembly, there are several likely implications. First, Israel and Saudi Arabia may pressure us to mobilize a bigger military presence in the Middle East to negate any advantages Iran will gain from the acquisition of the Su-30. Second, the Su-30 will improve Iran’s air defense against any potential attacks on its nuclear facilities. Third, Iran may employ its enhanced air power in Syria or other conflicts in the Middle East. [ii] This possibility not only could exacerbate tensions in the region, but it could also encourage the proliferation of advanced conventional weapons to countries competing with Iran. Fourth, Iran will have a greater ability to threaten the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and limit our ability to use gunboat diplomacy in future situations. Unlike the fighter jets Iran uses today, the Su-30 is an elite fourth generation aircraft, and, depending upon the anti-ship missiles Russia sells to Iran, could significantly reduce the US Navy’s capacity to protect its aircraft carriers.
The Current State of Iran’s Air Force
After decades of sanctions, Iran relies primarily on outdated F14A Tomcats, Soviet Mig-29s, F-4 Phantoms, and Chinese Chengdu J-7s. The moderately sized air force maintains the planes that are still operational by creating spare parts domestically and delaying periodic upgrades that are typically common in professional military organizations. [iii]
Besides frequent issues of maintenance and serviceability, Iran’s air force also suffers from questionable training programs. It is hard to educate pilots about old planes that need constant repairs or use equipment not specifically designed for that system. There is very little, if any, consistency in the air force’s curriculum for new pilots.
The shortcomings in training and weapon maintenance listed above do not necessarily mean that Iran is militarily weak, but they certainly do prevent Iran from having a world-class air force. Iranian officials like Dehghan acknowledge these issues and are looking for ways to change the military balance of power in their favor.
The Su-30 Fighter Jet
Russia’s Sukhoi Aviation Corporation and Irkut Corporation build the Su-30 weapon system. From publicly available information, we know that the Su-30 is a two-seat multirole combat aircraft that usually comes with modern optronic systems. This plane can carry an eight-ton payload of a variety of missiles over a distance that, from Iran, covers the entire Middle East. In addition to this expansive striking range, the Su-30 is also believed to have impressive maneuverability in air battles. One tactic that trained pilots can easily perform in the Su-30, for example, is to reduce their speed abruptly and then increase it to evade incoming threats. In the hands of a competent airman, the combination of super maneuverability and advanced electronic systems makes the Su-30 a lethal system against most targets on the sea or in the air.
The common characteristics that distinguish the Su-30 from other fighter jets remain the same across the twelve variants of the system. While we do not know the variant Iran is looking to obtain, it is helpful to briefly examine the four that are most likely:
- SU-30SME – The SME variant is a specially designed export version of the Su-SM model used by the Russian Air Force. This fourth generation jet fighter excels in air-to-air and air-to-sea combat exercises. Iranians leaders impressed by how the SM is performing in Syria might think that the SME, the closest variant to the SM offered on the market, is the best option for significantly boosting Iran’s air power. Foreign media sources speculate that Iran “is close to purchasing a significant number of Sukhoi Su-30SME Flanker multirole fighters.” [iv]
- Su-30M2 – This variant is the cheapest and most basic in the Su family. It has a similar multirole platform to the other models, but it normally does not come with the same electronic equipment as the most expensive variants. While the M2 may not be the most appealing option for a country seeking to drastically transform its air force, a cash-strapped nation such as Iran might not be able to afford the other choices. US officials should not rule out the possibility that Iran is seriously thinking about buying the Su-30M2.
- Su-30MKI – India’s air force has used the MKI since 2002. Disregarding custom modifications made by the Indians, the MKI typically has a range of 3,000 kilometers and boasts an array of radars for air-to-air combat. When the MKI took part in a war game hosted by the United States Air Force in 2004, it won approximately 90% of all combat missions. [v] Due to its past success in war games against American combat aircraft, the MKI may be an appealing option for an Iran worried about an air raid on its nuclear facilities.
- Su-30MKK – The MKK is in service for the Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Ugandan, and Venezuelan air forces. Each respective country is believed to have made slight changes to the aircraft for its own purposes, but, overall, the MKK is a versatile, long-range aircraft. Some people compare the Su-30MKK to the American F-15E Strike Eagle. Although this variant is not as advanced as the SME model, the possibility of Iran receiving spare parts and training from China may make the MKK an enticing choice.
How Will Iran Benefit From the Su-30?
A well-trained air force with Su-30 fighter jets would improve Iran’s aerial defenses for sensitive security targets and allow the Iranians to strategically project more offensive military power in the Middle East. Instead of basing a majority of their aircraft in two locations to protect central Iran, the air force could now disperse their combat aircraft across multiple bases throughout the country. [vi] It would then be possible for Iran not only to withstand a massive air raid on its nuclear facilities, but also possibly use its air assets to retaliate against any group within 5,000 kilometers of its borders, given aerial refueling.
In the event of hostilities closer to Iran, such as an escalation of violence in the Strait of Hormuz, the Iranian Air Force would have a much greater chance at achieving air superiority and eliminating a higher number of enemy ships. The relatively small operational space of the Persian Gulf could quickly be overwhelmed by speedboats, sea-mines, and Su-30s armed with anti-ship missiles in times of war.
If Iran decided to attack US military forces in the Middle East, for example, the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain would be particularly vulnerable to a stronger Iranian fixed-wing offensive capability. Without reinforcements or stronger defense systems against jet fighters like the Su-30, our Fifth Fleet might suffer massive casualties in a surprise attack orchestrated by Iran.
Potential Reactions to Consider
If Iran successfully acquires Su-30 fighter jets, we should prepare for negative reactions from our regional allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Kuwait. From the start of our nuclear negotiations with Iran in 2006, Israel and Saudi Arabia have expressed, both publicly and privately, the opinion that Iran cannot be trusted. Any attempts by Iran to obtain modern weapons once sanctions are lifted could be construed as evidence that our allies were right all along.
Talks between Iran and Russia for Su-30 fighter jets and, at least according to some news sources, S-300 air defense systems, have troubled the Israeli Air Force and other US partners in the Middle East.[vii] As a result of these developments, we should expect requests in the near future for greater cooperation in the UN Security Council to stop a Russian-Iranian arms deal, a larger American presence in the Middle East, more military assistance for our regional allies, and increased surveillance on Iran. The diplomatic pressure for us to do something stems from two persistent fears: Israel losing its air superiority in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia losing ground to its main Shi’a competitor.
If we fail to respond to these concerns in a satisfactory manner, Israel and Saudi Arabia will probably pursue more combat aircraft, MANPADS, and precision-guided munitions. The proliferation of advanced conventional weapons would, in turn, continue to destabilize an already turbulent region.
[i] Dave Majumdar, “The Middle East’s Nightmare: Iran Is Buying Russia’s Lethal Su-30,” The National Interest, February 15, 2016, accessed February 22, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-middle-easts-nightmare-iran-buying-russias-lethal-su-30-15213
[ii] “Iran’s Military Plays Catch Up,” Stratfor, February 19, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2016, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/irans-military-plays-catch
[iii] “Iran – Air Force,” Global Security, September 7, 2014, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/iran/airforce.htm
[iv] Farzin Nadimi, “Iran and Russia’s Growing Defense Ties,” The Washington Institute, February 18, 2016, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iran-and-russias-growing-defense-ties
[v] Dario Leone, “Cope India: when India’s Russian jets achieved a surprising 9:1 kill ratio against U.S. F-15s,” The Aviationist, May 2, 2014, accessed February 23, 2016, http://theaviationist.com/2014/05/02/cope-india-2004-results/
[vi] Farzin Nadimi, “Iran and Russia’s Growing Defense Ties,” The Washington Institute, February 18, 2016, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/iran-and-russias-growing-defense-ties
[vii] Bradley Klapper, “US: Russian fighter jet sale to Iran would violate arms ban,” The Times of Israel, February 19, 2016, accessed February 23, 2016, http://www.timesofisrael.com/us-russian-fighter-jet-sale-to-iran-would-violate-arms-ban/