In late February, Iran’s defense ministry revealed that the country was ready to convert its “fifth-generation” stealth fighter into an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The televised announcement was made by Brigadier General Afshin Khajefard, who said the Qaher platform had reached full technological maturity. Iran’s announcement follows a series of lethal drone shipments it has sent Russia over the last six months or so.
While Tehran has emerged as quite the prolific drone manufacturer, the country has lagged behind in terms of airplane capabilities.
The Iranian Air Force still flies a version of the aging F-14 Tomcat, suggesting that the Qaher’s purported abilities are exaggerated at best.
A brief history of Iran’s homegrown “stealth” fighter
The first mockup of the Qaher-313 fighter was first revealed in 2013 as the regime’s first fully indigenous stealth platform. According to the defense ministry, the Qaher was developed and designed fully by the Iran Aviation Industries Organization, a division of the Ministry of Defense.
The first jet prototype was revealed almost four years later. Iranian officials boasted that the Qaher could sport a 2,000 kilogram bomb or at a minimum six air-to-air-missiles. Additionally, Tehran’s former defense minister claimed that the platform had a small radar-cross section, is capable of flying at very low altitudes and can carry a litany of homegrown munitions.
Aviation buffs consider the Qaher to be a joke
For many reasons, industry experts and aviation buffs widely dismissed Iran’s dubious claims. At this time, Iran released some footage and photographs of its new premiere fighter. Perhaps laughably, in one video an Iranian pilot is seen crouched down in the cockpit of the jet, which is clearly way too small to actually fly a human being.
Without space for a pilot, the Qaher definitely can’t carry the internal payload as Iranian officials have claimed. Iran also did not possess the analytical and sensor technologies required to develop the capabilities the fighter was purported to have.
Initial analyses of the available footage of the Qaher highlighted the airframe’s sharp edges, angles and twin tail form, similar to the American-made F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation platforms. As observed by The Aviationist editor David Cenciotti, “The aircraft sports fixed canards and air intakes a bit too small to feed a modern jet plane’s engine; air intakes resemble those used by modern [unmanned aircraft] designs,” adding that “They are located above the wing meaning that at high AoA — angle of attack—the intakes would get turbulent or no air at all for the engine.”
Another serious design flaw appeared to be the nose section of the Qaher. The nose was so tiny that hardly any radar could fit inside it. Additionally, the airframe did not possess a nozzle, which would result in the melting of the entire fighter by the engine’s afterburners.
Could the Qaher become an exportable UAV?
While the Qaher certainly didn’t make the cut as an actual fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, the plane could be revived as a new UAV flown by Iran.
Tehran’s drone arsenal has become an increasingly lethal enterprise for the regime. In fact, Iran has steadily ramped up its UAV development alongside the expansion of its ballistic missile program.
Over the last decade or so, Iran has mastered the development and shipment of cheap, less advanced but deadly drones to its region-wide proxy groups. Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq, the Houthi rebels in Yemen and sporadic Iranian-aligned groups in Syria all receive consistent deliveries of these combat UAVs.
Most recently, Iran has provided Russian Forces with a variety of lethal drones, including the Shahed family. Due to Tehran’s deliveries, Moscow has been able to carry out a litany of barrages targeting a range of residential buildings, critical infrastructure and personnel in Ukraine.
Drone warfare has arguably monopolized Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Ukraine, fueling Iran’s ambition to become a UAV manufacturing powerhouse. Weakened economically by sanctions, Tehran has been turning to its sale of drones to fund its military apparatus. If successful, the future drone-turned Qaher could be another cash cow for the Iranian regime.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.