Is it worth for Russia to exchange Su-35 for Iranian drones?

Two months ago, according to a recent report by the Reference News Network, claiming that Russia would purchase a large number of military drones from Iran and hire Iranian technicians to train the Russian military in exchange, Russia is likely to supply Iran with Su-35 fighter jets.

Although both Iran and Russia denied the matter at the time, according to a report by the Iranian News Agency on September 4, the Iranian Air Force’s purchase of Su-35S fighter jets has entered the implementation stage. In addition, it is likely that Russia has also acquired the first batch of Iranian drones.

There are reports that Iran has delivered a considerable number of drones to Russia.

In January this year, Iran and Russia reached a defense agreement: Iran will purchase 24 Su-35S, two S-400 air defense systems and a military satellite from Russia within the next 20 years. Defense sources say the two countries, which also lack foreign exchange, are likely to trade in barter.

At present, the Iranian Air Force urgently needs new fighter jets to complete the upgrades, and its ground air defense system also needs to be upgraded. Foreign aid is hard to come by because the country has been under sanctions for a long time.

The MiG-29 equipped by the Iranian Air Force will end its service life soon.

Due to the common source of strategic threats with Russia, Iran has not only had close military cooperation with Russia in the Middle East, but other military cooperation between the two sides also has great prospects for development. Many netizens will inevitably have such questions as a result: Why does Russia not seek help from China, which has significantly more developed drone technology ?

Why is there such a big gap in Russian and Iranian drone technology?

Today’s Russia is obviously behind China and the United States in many cutting-edge conventional weapons, but the basic concepts and technologies of these weapons actually originated from the former Soviet Union. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union launched unmanned target drones, and since then developed many military drones of various specifications, such as the Tu-123 with a maximum speed of Mach 2.5. These Soviet drones, often powered by turbojet engines, had excellent speed, range and high-altitude performance, and could even operate freely in the harsh environment after a nuclear explosion.

However, Russia has shortcomings in avionics and remote control of aircraft, which also makes the development of UAVs face great problems, so that it is difficult to reverse the amount of copycats after acquiring the technology of the U.S. D-21 high-altitude and high-speed UAV during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the senior leaders of the Soviet army believed that their own territory was very deep, the self-sustaining power of UAVs was limited, and the development value was not great. In addition, due to the blockade of the West, it is difficult for the Soviet Union to solve the technical problems of the special engine for UAVs through transnational cooperation, so the development of UAVs in Russia has not been smooth.

In contrast, Iran began to study U.S. drone technology as early as the Pahlavi era, and its early domestic reconnaissance drones also played a big role in the Iran-Iraq war, so they were extremely well-received by the Revolutionary Guard and other armed forces.

To this end, Iran has increased the research and development of electronics, composite materials, instruments and special engines, integrated relevant research and development institutions in its own country, and obtained a lot of technical information on UAVs of other countries through various channels under the circumstance of being sanctioned and blocked.

Since it has always been regarded as an important imaginary enemy by the United States, various types of UAVs of the U.S. military have frequently appeared near the Strait of Hormuz for many years, which has also greatly stimulated Iran’s drone interception/capture technology. For more than a decade, the U.S. “Global Hawk” and other drones have been repeatedly captured by Iran. For Iran, this is undoubtedly a gift from heaven. Just like China’s reverse research and development after China accidentally captured American torpedoes and anti-radiation missiles, Iran has also made full use of such special “foreign aid”.

In recent years, Iran has owned a variety of surveillance drones, small suicide drones and even stealth drones. The quality of materials, electronics and thermal imaging systems of these drones cannot be underestimated. Iran’s largest domestically-made Fordros drone can even carry 16 missiles and can fly for 30 hours! Its small suicide drones are also heavily used by the Houthis, and the Saudi military had a hard time dealing with such an adversary until it got the chinese laser anti-drone system.

Why does the Iranian Air Force need the Su-35?

In 1955, the Royal Iranian Air Force was officially established. In the Pahlavi era, this force once had more than 400 various types of US fighter jets, the strongest of which was 79 F-14A Tomcat fighter jets. At the same time, the training level of the Iranian Air Force is also highly borrowed from the US military, and its quality should not be underestimated. However, after the Islamic revolution broke out in 1979, Western countries began to impose arms and technology embargoes on Iran, which made it difficult for the Iranian Air Force to obtain advanced fighter jets and maintain its existing fighter jets.

During the Iran-Iraq War, the F-14A performed exceptionally well, but the aircraft suffered great losses. Although the actual combat performance of the MiG series made Iran highly questioned its performance, the MiG-29 has become Iran’s last hope. In addition, the Soviet Union also provided dozens of pilots and ground crews and supplementary parts for the MiG-29, and the aircraft’s technical manuals and other support equipment also arrived in Iran one after another.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union had a great impact on the MiG-29 trade between the two countries, so until 1992, Iran only bought 25 MiG-29A/UB, but many Iraqi pilots in the Gulf War flew MiG-29 to the past. Enemy countries took refuge, these fighters were eventually confiscated by Iran, and the strength of the Iranian Air Force was also strengthened. However, since the new century, the MiG-29, like the F-14A, has become increasingly aging, and the cooperation agreement between Iran and Russia has been interrupted many times. Therefore, the Iranian Air Force’s plan to extend the life of the MiG-29 has been very difficult.

From the perspective of land area, Iran can be described as the largest country in the Middle East, which makes its Air Force naturally have a soft spot for twin-engine heavy fighter jets with large range and wide application. Iran has great enthusiasm for such heavy fighters. In contrast, whether it is a twin-engine medium fighter such as the MiG-29 or a single-engine J-10C, it is difficult to completely meet Iran’s tastes. As far as Iran’s own level is concerned, it is obviously impossible to independently develop twin-engine heavy fighter jets.

In 2014, the Russian economy was hit hard by European and American sanctions, so it was difficult for the Russian Aerospace Forces to deploy Su-35S fighter jets as much as expected, so it could only push them to the arms sales market. However, in the opinion of some customers who value the comprehensive adaptability of fighters, the price of the Su-35, which highlights air superiority, is high, and it lacks rear-seat weapon operators. There are deficiencies, so the Su-35 eventually lost to the once unknown Rafale series fighters in markets such as India.

How helpful is it for the Su-35 to attract Iran?

Air threats from Israel and the United States have become an common problem for Iran since the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, by a U.S. drone. At present, Iran’s ground air defense includes two areas: low-altitude and high-altitude. The main weapons include ZSU-23 and other anti-aircraft artillery, Sam-7 series portable air defense missiles, Tor-M1 air defense missiles and S-300PMU2 systems, but their technical level are clearly incapable of fighting an air-powered adversary at the outbreak of war.

At present, there are less than 350 aircrafts of various types that Iran can still operate, of which there are only 24 F-14As. Although many military fans have a soft spot for this fighter jet that became popular because of the movie TOPGUN, at today’s level, its avionics and radar have long fallen behind. Even if Iran has made every effort to improve some of its subsystems, its overall performance is also changing the soup without changing the medicine, and it cannot solve the problem of aging. Considering that there are also few “phoenix” missiles used by the aircraft, the only remaining F-14 is almost completely furnished.

As the third-stage improved product of the Su-27, the Su-35’s fuselage and wing structure, fly-by-wire control, weapons and avionics have been fully upgraded. If it carries two 1800-liter auxiliary fuel tanks, its maximum combat radius can reach 1600 kilometers. In addition, the aircraft is equipped with a engines with a vector nozzle, and its maximum afterburner thrust can reach 145 kN. With the help of integrated control technology, the performance of the Su-35’s vector thrust engine can be maximized, thereby achieving excellent maneuverability, and the pilot can quickly adjust the attitude in battle.

The Su-35’s Snow Leopard-E passive phased array radar theoretically has a maximum detection range of 350 kilometers for air targets. Russia claims that it can detect stealth targets with a radar reflection cross-section of 0.01 square meters at a distance of 90 kilometers. The radar has the capability of small team early warning and command, that is, it transmits the targets detected by itself to other teammates in the formation to improve the overall efficiency. Even so, the radar was the best airborne radar the Iranian Air Force could possibly acquire, even though it was slow to spot the F-22 during the standoff in Syria.

In terms of weapon systems, the Su-35 can use R-73, R-77, KH-59MK air-launched cruise missiles and KAB-500 precision-guided munitions, and the bomb load cannot be underestimated. Since Iran has accumulated experience in using Russian fighter jets on the MiG-29, Russia will also send special personnel to assist Iran in quickly mastering the aircraft’s driving skills, and the standard ammunition of the Su-35 is also easily guaranteed. Therefore, the Su-35 undoubtedly will play a role in helping the Iranian Air Force get help in the fight against its enemies. Therefore, from the perspective of the Iranian Air Force and the Su-35, there is undoubtedly a high degree of mutual satisfaction with each other.

Of course, this does not mean that the arrival of the Su-35 has completely solved all the problems of the Iranian Air Force. At present, Israel has ordered at least 75 F-35As, and its Air Force currently has a total of 33 F-35As. In addition, the US military can also dispatch amphibious assault ships carrying F-35B or aircraft carriers carrying F-35C to the vicinity of the Persian Gulf at any time. In the face of such mighty opponents, the Sukhoi Su-35 can play a great role of Iran acquires them in large numbers.


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