by Stephen Bryen*
Russian sources are now confirming what the Iranians have already said, that Iran will sign a deal to buy Su-30’s from Russia. The result of this deal is that Iran can soon dominate the Persian Gulf, a radical change with seriously negative consequences for the oil producing countries, for those who depend on them, and for the United States. Downstream from the immediate regional impact is that Iran’s Sukhois will give them an answer to Israel’s air power.
There is a lot we do not know about the Su-30 deal: indeed there are so many variants of the Su-30 that it is likely that Iran will customize its purchase to meet its needs, just as the Indian and Chinese Air Forces came up with their own variations. Almost certainly the Iranians will want a plane that is equal or superior to the airplanes flown by their neighbors, most importantly Saudi Arabia. And they will want a plane that can challenge US carriers operating in the Gulf, which today are flying F-18G Growlers and F-18 E/F Super Hornets. Downstream Iran will want an aircraft that can contend with the F-35 and, perhaps, the F-22.
[Indian SU-30’s visited Saudi Arabia where they showed off their capability.]
The most modern of the Su-30’s are close in performance to the latest Russian fighter, the Su-35. Russia has sent Su30SM’s to Syria along with Su-35’s. The SM is a new model, manufactured by Irkut in Russia, and first deployed in 2012. As Air Force Technology reports, “The multi-role Su-30SM can be deployed in counter-air strikes, counter-land and counter-sea missions. It can conduct electronic counter-countermeasures and early warning tasks. The aircraft also acts as a command-and-control platform within a fleet of combat aircraft performing joint missions.”
There are many choices for weapons, systems, radars, power plants and advanced cockpits for the Su-30, making it hard to be sure what the Russians are going to be willing to release to Iran, and the impact of what it sells in the region.
The Su-30 is regarded as an analogue to the F-15 (latest versions) and the F-18 (latest versions). It is an open question whether it can be effective against the F-22, which remains America’s most advanced (and most expensive) fighter; it probably could successfully challenge the F-35 provided it is equipped with the right long range missiles, the best radar, and top notch jammers.
India flies a variant of the Su-30. When India participated in US Red Flag exercises, one of India’s ground rules was that it would not turn on its radar because it did not want to expose its capability to the US or other Red Flag participants. The Indian Air Force Su-30’s are equipped with the Russian No. 11 BARS-R radar, which has a passive electronically scanned array. Even more modern radars are now appearing in the Su-35 and the forthcoming Su-50 stealth platforms, which likely have the capability to pick up the F-35, and maybe the F-22 at longer range.
Russia is now producing a number of long range air to air missiles and should be able to challenge the US reliance on beyond visual range (BVR) tactics. The Iranians are quite familiar with BVR. They were the only foreign country to receive the Navy’s F-14
equipped with Phoenix air to air missiles (beginning in 1976 near the end of the Shah’s regime). Some Iranian F-14’s are still flying. The Iranians cloned the Phoenix missile (AIM-54) in 2013. Called the Fakour, these missiles may end up on the Su-30’s. They have a range of 100 miles. The missile’s seeker head is thought to be a knock-off of the Hawk SAM, a US ground launched air defense missile.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the Su-30 is its maneuverability and range. Its maneuverability gives it an edge in close combat situations. Its range is enough for Iran to have good coverage of the Persian Gulf and sufficient range to hit local airfields in Saudi Arabia. Because it is a multirole platform, it can carry out everything from air intercept to ground attack roles, with both precision and “iron” bombs; it is a direct threat to US Navy assets operating in the Gulf, including US aircraft carriers. It manifestly changes the game because the US no longer will have air dominance in the Gulf, and Iranian power will be more readily felt by the other Gulf players, already deeply concerned about Iranian long and medium range missiles, and by the virtual likelihood of ongoing atomic and unconventional weapons research sponsored by the Iranian regime.
All of this raises a huge shadow over the Iran nuclear agreement. It is objectively a very bad deal for the following reasons: (1) uncertainty it will really stop or slow Iran’s atomic weapons development, some of which may be hidden and other components likely offshore; (2) permits Iran to develop its long range missiles; (3) permits Iran to develop WMD such as chemical and biological weapons; (4) arms Iran with the latest weapons denying the US and its allies airpower superiority.
Once these modern weapons are delivered, it gives the Iranians greater options to cause trouble in the Gulf, just as they have done recently by capturing two US RIB boats and
sequestering the crew, by hostile unguided missile launches over the bow of the US Aircraft Carrier Harry Truman (CVN-75) and by frequent efforts to humiliate the United States, the latest claims by Iran’s military leaders that the US is now subordinate to Iran in the Gulf. As the US has not responded in any concrete way to these threats, there will be more not less of them ahead.
Russian motives in supplying arms to Iran is probably more related to the sinking Russian economy than to any concrete political objective. When Iran was desperate and about to be routed in Syria, the Russians came to their rescue (and to the rescue of Assad and Hezbollah). That rescue seems to be working, but it has also freed up the Iranians and set up a situation that could lead to war with Israel. Israel won’t tolerate an Iranian presence on or near the Golan Heights, nor will they allow the supply of additional sophisticated long range rockets to Hezbollah. The Russians have to be very careful, for while the Russians have their latest airplanes in Syria, they don’t have enough air power to challenge Israel successfully, nor does Putin want that to happen. To some degree, the Russians face the risk of the tail wagging the dog. Iran has an immense capacity to cause trouble, and its behavior could well spin out of anyone’s control.
It would make sense for the United States and Israel to take up the issue of the supply of advanced arms to Iran with the Russians. But to have this dialogue and make it successful, the US must, above all, start acting like a real power. Running away from the Iranians in the Gulf is not just cowardice: it is hugely dangerous to peace and stability.
Stephen Bryen is the author of the new book, Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers (Transaction Publishers). He served previously as a senior official in the Department of Defense.