Yesterday, January 16, 2023, the news publication The Algemeiner, which describes itself as “a global news destination published online and in print, serves as an independent media voice covering the Middle East, Israel and matters of Jewish interest around the world,” ran a story authored by Andrew Bernard bearing the headline “Iran to Receive Russian Fighter Jets by March in Latest Sign of Growing Military Ties: Iranian Media.” The specific fighter jet in question is the Sukhoi Su-35 (NATO reporting name “Flanker-E”).
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Talk about an unholy alliance, one that would’ve been unheard of back in the heady days of the Cold War when the Soviet Union was officially an atheist state – contrasted with Putin’s current buddy-buddy relationship with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church – and Iran was under the ultraradical Shiite Islamist rule of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But then again, a Russo-Sino alliance wouldn’t have been feasible back then either.
From a coldly analytical standpoint, this arms deal could be seen as a logical progression in the Russo-Iranian relationship. After all, Iran recently and infamously supplied Shahed-136 drones to Russia to aid Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, so this could be seen as a case of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”
Current State of Iranian Air Force Fleet
As we at 19FortyFive have noted in multiple previous articles, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF; نیروی هوایی ارتش جمهوری اسلامی ایران, Nirvi-ye Hevayi-ye Artesh-e Jimhuri-ye Eslâmi-ye Iran) is heavily reliant on obsolescent fighter jets like the F-14 Tomcat and F-4 Phantom II (“proof that if you put enough thrust behind a brick you can make it fly”), which were superb fighters back in their heyday but nowadays are totally outclassed by 4.5-Generation and 5th-Generation fighters.
In addition, the IRIAF has the Chengdu F-7, a Red Chinese license-built version of the Soviet MiG-21 “Fishbed,” which gave the F-4 Phantom a run for its money back during the Vietnam War but is hopelessly outdated nowadays, the Dassault Mirage F1 – which was manufactured from 1966 to 1992 – the 1972 vintage F-5 Tiger II, and the MiG-29 “Fulcrum,” which on-paper was supposed to be the equal of the F-15 Eagle but didn’t quite work out that way in practice.
According to recent estimates, the IRIAF has 24 Tomcats, 63 Phantoms, 35 Tigers IIs, 17 F-7s, 12 Mirages, and 19 Fulcrums.
Sukhoi Su-35 History & Specifications
So then, by all accounts, the Su-35 would be a huge upgrade and modernization for the IRIAF; as the aforementioned Algemeiner article puts it, “As a so-called 4.5 generation fighter, the Su-35 would be a substantial upgrade to Iran’s aging aerial fleet … The Su-35 is believed to be competitive with the F-15 and F-16 4th and 4.5-generation fighters operated US partners in the region including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, but is less advanced than the fifth-generation US F-22 or F-35, the latter of which has also been acquired by Israel.”
The Turkish media outlet Anadolu Agency reports that Tehran will receive 24 of the Russian jet fighters, tentatively slated to arrive sometime after Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, which kicks off on March 21, 2023.
Built by the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) – an amalgamation of Mikoyan, Ilyushin, Irkut, Tupolev, and Yakovlev – the Flanker-E made her maiden flight on February 19, 2008, and entered into operational service with the Russian Air Force in February 2014.
The plane is essentially a refinement of the original “Flanker,” the Su-27. UAC proudly boasts that the newer warbird “combines the qualities of a modern fighter (super-maneuverability, superior active and passive acquisition aids, high supersonic speed and long-range, capability of managing battle group actions, etc.) and a good tactical airplane (wide range of weapons that can be carried, modern multi-channel electronic warfare system, reduced radar signature, and high combat survivability).”
The Flanker-E certainly has a lot of impressive attributes on-paper; it’s armed with a Gryazev-Shipunov GSh-30-1 30mm cannon with 150 rounds of ammunition, along with 12 hardpoints for bombs and missiles, and it can reach speeds of up to 1,553 miles per hour (2.02 Mach). The plane has a flight range of approximately 2,174 miles, a combat range of 990 miles, and a service ceiling of 59,000 feet.
Where to From Here?
However, this much-vaunted new addition to the IRIAF arsenal doesn’t necessarily automatically translate into Iran becoming the dominant airpower player in the Middle East.
After all, the performance of the Su-35 in the service of the Russians themselves has been less than spectacular in Ukraine; by some accounts, up to two dozen Russian-piloted Flanker-Es have been shot down in the Ukraine campaign thus far. And Iran’s fighter pilots – thanks to their country’s international pariah status – simply don’t have the training resources or budget that their Russian counterparts do; for that matter, their resources don’t stack up to those of the Israeli Air Force or the air forces of the Western-trained and equipped Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
Meanwhile, as for the flip side of that Russo-Iranian alliance, i.e. the UAVs, that isn’t going so well for either party; according to my 19FortyFive colleague Alia Shoaib in an article published back in late November 2022, at least 10 Iranian advisers have been killed in Ukrainian military strikes on Crimea.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).