The Iran Deal Will Help Russia Have a Stealth Air Force

by Stephen Bryen

The Iran deal will boost Russia’s arms industry and make it possible for Russia to replace its older aircraft with newer stealth models.

Thanks to the deal approved by the U.S., the allies and by Russia, the arms embargo on Iran will “officially” be lifted in 5 years. But the rush to sell arms to Iran has been on for some time and defense companies from Europe along with the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans have been flocking to Tehran offering their wares.

The biggest single need for Iran is fighter and bomber aircraft. There have been many reports that iran has already made deals with China and Russia, but the big deals are still ahead of us. That’s because until now Iran did not have the cash. The nuclear deal is pouring cash into Iran most of which will be spent on arms.

Iran’s Air Force is dilapidated. It has old F-4 Phantom Jets (64, the number in service not known), F-14’s (44 out of 80 remain in service) and F-5’s (60 out of 140 operational) from the United States. Iran has 30 MIG-29A’s of which 24 are in service and 24 Mirage F1’s that were evacuated from Iraq and never returned. Iran has some 20 Sukhoi-24 bombers and some Sukhoi Su-25’s both of which were formerly Iraqi aircraft. Reportedly Iran sent 7 of the Su-25’s back to Iraq to use against ISIS. Iran also has around 20 Chinese F-7M fighters it bought in the 1980s.

None of the aircraft in Iran’s inventory can stand up to US made F-15’s and F-16’s let alone deal with the F-22 or the forthcoming F-35. For Iran to claim regional power it must upgrade its air force radically. Most of all, to stay abreast it needs a genuine stealth fighter bomber.

That is why the lifting of the arms embargo is fortuitous for Iran since it allows the Russians to offer their new Sukhoi PAK FA T-50 stealth fighter bomber. The T-50 is a fifth generation air superiority and attack aircraft that uses stealth technology, has a supercruise capability and is regarded as far more maneuvreable than the F-22 or the F-35. In fact, the PAK FA T-50 is the Russian Air Force answer to the F-22.

The F-50 is not yet in production. There are many problems on the Russian side, but the biggest one is lack of cash.

That is why the Russians have been working hard to convince India to be the first international customer for the F-50. But the Indians have been taking their time, raising objections, criticizing the workmanship of the aircraft and have evinced alarm about the reliability of the F-50 engines. In turn this has created a major delay in the Russian ability to finance the F-50 for its own air force. Initial production has been delayed and pushed into 2016, with many experts suggesting it will even be delayed further.

Iran, therefore, can bail out the Russian Air Force by helping to finance the PAK-T-50 program. Helping to finance based on future deliveries probably is consistent with the deal struck by the allies, since it is not quite a sale and the aircraft won’t immediately be transferred to Iran.

When the PAK T-50’s get to Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan will face a formidable problem. The Russian plane has the latest radars and weapons packages and its stealth will make it hard to defeat the T-50 with stand off weapons. The entire theory of the F-35, for example, is based on the idea of knocking the enemy out before the enemy detects the F-35. But if Russia’s stealth system turns out to be good, that advantage is liquidated.

For the western countries, most arms sales to Iran are likely to be electronics and spare parts instead of major systems. Iran will want parts for its F-5’s and F-4’s, perhaps for its F-14’s, and may also seek improvements on those platforms such as better radars or electronic warfare pods. But for sure the big potential benefactor is Russia.

One other significant impact is that the opening up of arms sales undermines the sanctions on Russia put there because of Russia’s military adventurism in the Ukraine. For the most part this deal makes those sanctions largely superfluous because, other than the export of its mineral wealth, Russia productivity is largely focused on its military industry. That is why the Russians are pushing so hard on the Ukraine, because a significant share of their military manufacturing is in Ukrainian hands and the Russians want it back.

While Congress will look at the nuclear deal primarily from the point of view of its adequacy and enforceability, the fact that the deal will boost Russia’s arms industry and help it rapidly build its Air Force’s stealth capability is a major strategic concern that should not be swept under the table.

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