Iran might soon receive advanced Su-35 Flanker-E multirole fighter jets from Russia and possibly other military equipment, including S-400 air defense missile systems. How substantially these acquisitions could ultimately affect the power balance in the Middle East remains to be seen.

A mockup of a Su-35 recently photographed by satellite outside Iran’s southern underground Eagle 44 airbase further fueled speculation that Iran expects to receive that aircraft as part of its most substantive fighter order in over 30 years.

Iran will receive at least 24 Flankers after supplying Russia with hundreds of drones for its war against Ukraine. Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, defense ties between Moscow and Tehran have flourished. In December, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby warned that Russia was providing Iran “an unprecedented level of military and technical support that is transforming their relationship into a full-fledged defense partnership.”

That same month he also commented on the Su-35 delivery, declaring, “These fighter planes will significantly strengthen Iran’s air force relative to its regional neighbors.”

However, as previously outlined here, a mere two dozen of these aircraft would hardly give Iran air superiority over the Persian Gulf since the Gulf Arab states alone possess hundreds of advanced Western-built 4.5-generation fighters.

Nevertheless, similar statements in the Russian press suggest that Iranian Flankers could potentially give Tehran certain advantages against the militaries of neighboring states.

“This aircraft will be especially effective if Iran can install original weapons on it,” Mohammad-Hassan Sangtarash, an Iranian military analyst, told the Russian state-run Sputnik news site in January.

“The Super Flanker Su-35 can play the role of a combat mini-AWACS (airborne warning and control system), and if connected to Iran’s radar network, it will acquire unique point defense capabilities,” he said. “If Iran purchases technologies and kicks off joint massive production [of the Su-35], it can gain a certain advantage over the fighters and warships of countries neighboring Iran.”

On the other hand, analysts outlined the many challenges ahead and likely limits to what Moscow might ultimately prove willing or even able to provide Tehran.

“There is great expectation that Iran-Russian enterprise will only grow with the spring coming,” Farzin Nadimi, a defense and security analyst and Associate Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me.

“Ballistic and cruise missiles would be the first, but other areas should be considered too,” he said. “Also, Iran would be one route China might use to channel through its future military exports to Russia.”

Despite the existence of the Su-35 mockup at Eagle 44, Nadimi pointed out that “there’s no evidence yet the Su-35s are arriving any time soon” but anticipates an eventual delivery.

As for the armaments the Iranian Flankers will carry, he anticipates a Russian delivery of the R-77 beyond visual range air-to-air missile (Russia’s equivalent to the American AIM-120 AMRAAM) but is unsure if Moscow will supply Tehran with the R-37 missile. He also anticipates that Iran will want advanced missiles for its Su-35s, such as the air-launched Kh-59 cruise missile.

Regarding the prospect of Iran arming these jets with indigenous weapons, as Sangtarash suggested, Nadimi anticipates that “Russia might give source codes for modifications later” but “not with the original delivery.”

“Maybe a few years (after the delivery), unless Iran offers something Russia really needs,” he said.

James Devine, Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Mount Allison University, also anticipates various technical issues with any Iranian acquisition of advanced Russian systems.

“As for the regional implications for Iran’s weapons purchases, the impact is uncertain,” he told me. “Russia has been using S-400s against ground targets, but I have not seen a good analysis of how they have fared against advanced attack aircraft, the job they would have in Iran. There is certainly room for doubt about their effectiveness though.”

Devine noted that even a complex missile system like the S-400 needs to be part of a larger integrated air defense system. How well Iran could do this remains unclear, although Devine noted if the infamous January 2020 Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 shootdown is any indication, then Tehran’s “command-and-control system may have problems that undermine the effectiveness of the new system.”

Similarly, the Su-35s will have to be integrated into broader networks of radars and sensors, “and if Iran’s systems are weak, the new jets will not be able to perform as well as the Iranians may hope.”

“At best, it will take time to integrate the new aircraft into Iran’s military, both in terms of air defense systems and pilot training,” he said.

“It is also important to note that these weapons, in the context of Iranian military needs, will be used as defense systems,” he added. “Iran has other missiles for ground strikes and will keep the S-400s to protect its air space.”

He also noted that the number of Su-35s, especially the first delivery of 24, “is not enough to shift the balance of power in the region.”

“Again, they will be used to defend against and hopefully deter Israeli and American airstrikes,” he said.

Despite these limitations, Devine worries the delivery of these weapons systems could accelerate a preemptive attack on Iran by the West.

“The one concern I would have is that the West may speed up the timeline for counter-proliferation strikes because it is concerned that operational Su-35s and S-400s will complicate their ability to hit Iranian targets and, therefore, feel that a window of opportunity is closing,” he said.

Source » forbes