Sunday, February 3, 2013

The new Iranian "stealth"(?) fighter: more questions than answers

Iran has unveiled its latest indigenously built fighter, the Qaher-313.  Check out the Press TV report:

When I saw this video I was rather baffled as many things just looked *wrong* to me.  I then contacted one of my readers who knows a great deal about military aeronautics (thanks C.!) to compare notes, and it rapidly turned out that he also had many unanswered questions.  So let's take them one by one:

The aircraft is amazingly small.  How can a fighter-bomber be so small and have enough fuel and weapons on board to be useful?  Keep in mind that the Iranians claims that this is a low radar visibility aircraft, in which case not only can not carry external fuel tanks under its wings (which are very visible on radar), it has to carry its weapons inside a special weapons bay.  Where does this aircraft fit all this?

The Iranians told us nothing about the engine, but this is clearly a single engine aircraft which I would consider a poor choice for any combat aircraft, but this is a particularly bad choice for a fighter-bomber.  What kind of thrust-to-weight ratio can this aircraft develop, in particular when loaded up with fuel and weapons?

The Iranians say that this aircraft is designed for low flight, but that then begs the question of the extreme vulnerability of any single engine aircraft to missile and gun fire.  And if you add armor to protect such a penetrator, you add lots of weight, but that means even more engine power!  That also means a much bigger aircraft, something like the Russian SU-34.

The radar radome on the of the Qaher-313 is also tiny.  While you could, in theory, probably fit a radar like the Kopyo in there, the Iranians have never, as far as I know, produced their own radars, nevermind one capable of both air-to-air and air-to-surface modes.

Then there is the issue of the canards.  To me, they appear to be both very big (which increases radar reflectivity) and, worse, fixed.  If my later supposition is correct, then this will increase lift, but at the cost of drag, and this would indicate very old avionics.

The engine is fully covered by a red plastic shield, but it is clear that the exhaust is really small.  Combine that with a small aircraft size, and tells me that this bird could probably not even fit a MiG-29 type of engine (the RD-33).  And since we are on the engine topic, Iran has never, as far as I know, developed its own advanced engines.

The cockpit has two nice features: the pilot is reclining and seems to have an excellent view and the cockpit it has large multi-functional displays.  What is entirely missing is a head-up display (HUD). Also, the canopy does not appear to have any sealing.  Weird.

Finally, in some angles the paint job appears to be terrible, even in the crucial front part of the plane.

So if I had to conclude something, and I am basing that only on the few videos and photos I have seen, I would say that this is a mock-up, not even a real plane.  However, there is at least one video out there which appears to show this aircraft in actual flight:

Since don't speak Farsi, I do not know what the commentary says, but on the grainy images this does appear to be the same aircraft.

Strange no?

Now, assuming the real fighter is much bigger, and assuming it has something like an RD-33 inside and a Kopyo radar does not solve the riddle either: the Iranians claim that this is an entirely indigenous aircraft.  Or are they referring only to the airframe?

There are original features to this aircraft for sure, the wings have a unique shape and no apparent leading-edge extensions (LEX) while the canards are almost as big as the wings.  The engine intakes are tiny, and placed high near the top of the aircraft, right behind the cockpit.  All this is rather unique and very different from what has been done in the USA, Russia or China.

I find this absolutely fascinating.  Even if we are dealing only with a pure proof of concept aircraft, or a testing platform like the SU-47, this still shows that the Iranians are way ahead of all their neighbors and that they are working on interesting and original solutions.

Still, Iran supporters (like myself) should remain very realistic.  As far as I know, Iran has never developed any indigenous advanced fighter engine, Iran has never developed an advanced military radar and Iran has never developed the type of advanced fly by wire avionics needed to fly a low radar visibility aircraft.  Bottom line - while Iran is probably making much progress in many fields, I don't see it developing an aircraft in the same league as what the USA have already deployed or even what Russia and China are working on. At least not in the foreseeable future (next 5-10 years).

The Saker