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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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPUqSmrNhIc


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

10 comments:

Carlo said...

Bottom line is: the Iranians need desperately new fighters, as almost all their fleet comes from the times of the Shah (their most recent adquisitions were planes that fled from Iraq in 1991, and very few they managed to buy in the 1990's from Belarus and China). While the possibility of an attack against Iran is high, no one is willing to sell them, neither Russia nor China. The Iranians made huge progress in building many parts to keep their air force working, so it is natural that they may start developing and building their own fighters. But to develop and build a modern fighter is an extremely complex task, demanding many highly skilled engineers and technicians, and many hi-tech industries. China is still dependent on Russia for their new designs, specially engines, and even Russia, which inherited the huge industrial power of the USSR, has difficulties with refining their newest designs and turning them into fully operational: the Su-34 is a proof of this, after 6 years since serial production of this aircraft began, there are still bugs to be fixed. So, if it is hard for heavy weights like Russia or China, imagine what it will be for Iran. But Iran has no other choice.

VINEYARDSAKER: said...

@Carlo: I fully agree. And we should also remember the crippling sanctions imposed by pretty much the entire planet against Iran (what a disgrace that is!). Even South Africa, which had A LOT covert aid from the USA, Israel and many European nations, had a great deal of difficulties to develop its own military industries. The entire experience of South Africa's tests of Russian RD-33 on their Super Mirage F-1 and Super Cheetah D-2 showed that the Russian engine was far superior to the locally produced one.

The reality is the only 4 nations on the planet have the resources to produce advanced combat aircraft: the USA, Russia, China and France. Everybody else imports major components.

Think about it: there are more nations capable of building a nuclear weapon (Eight: USA, Russia, China, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and the DPRK (as far as I know, UK's nuclear warheads are all US designed, irrc)) than can build advanced multi-role aircraft.

Amazing, no?

Lysander said...

Thanks for a great analysis. But I wonder why fighter aircraft are useful for Iran. To build a decent fighter is one thing. To build one that can challenge US air dominance is something else all together. To build SEVERAL HUNDRED of such an aircraft is still another thing.

Wouldn't Iran be better off investing in accurate ballistic missiles (as they are doing but more) and in a multi layered air defense system?

Then again, maybe the process of design gives their engineers lots of experience that they can build on over decades. Perhaps Iran is thinking very long term.

Anonymous said...

The flights you see are of a scale model. This plane is still in development, and it will be some time before this plane is combat ready.

For the forseeable future, Iran's defense strategy will remain vested in it's growing missile arsenal. It's a good strategy, and there is no need to change it at the moment.

As for the radars: Iran has been improving on foreign radars since the opening the Iraq war. For understandable reasons, they don't market their advancements to other countries. Even so, they are likely much further along than are generally given credit for: the hacking and recovery of the RQ-170 sentinel proves at least that much.

The questions of the engine, overall size are interesting. Given the smaller size of the plane, maybe the've been able to build a much smaller engine for it than what you imagine, and aren't expecting to use it in more of an air fighter role than a bomber.

Masoud

Lysander said...

A commenter at moon of Alabama suggests the plane is not at all designed for air to air combat, but is intended as a stealth aircraft which would fly at very low altitude over water, fire a couple of missiles at a ship and escape. As such, it doesn't need a lot of the things a fighter would have and the fact that it's smaller makes it more stealthy. Does that make more sense?

VINEYARDSAKER: said...

@Lysander: a stealth aircraft which would fly at very low altitude over water, fire a couple of missiles at a ship and escape

Hmmmmmm. Dunno. First, anti-shipping missiles are *big* and *heavy*, especially those designed to be capable of damaging or sinking big ships. Even if the Qaher F313 would carry only one of them, where would he put it?! Second, targeting naval vessels usually involves fusing data from radars, sonars, satellites, recon aircraft, etc. This requires some very fancy communications gear which I doubt the Iranians have. Now if the Qaher F313 is supposed to go search and destroy on his own, then that would require a high-low-high flight profile which would make him very vulnerable to attack. Third, the key to attacking a military ship often involves saturation (lots of missiles from different bearings). Yes, there have been cases of successful single missile attacks (like the Argentinians hitting the Brits with modified Exocets) but these were mostly surprise attacks which the Brits did not see coming. The USN would not let that kind of stuff happen. You would need either a lot of strike aircraft to do that kind of job or a lot of missiles on each aircraft. Forth, the airframe for low level "surf skipping" aircraft is usually much heavier because the aircraft is buffeted around a lot and because low level high speed penetration takes a lot of fuel. The shape of the Qaher just looks wrong to me for that kind of purpose (again, compare that with the SU-34).

I might be wrong here, and maybe the Iranians have conceived of a very different kind of tactics here. In warfare it is really important to think "out of the box" and not to assume that the Iranians must do things just the way the USA or Russia would. So please don't take what I wrote as anything but my best guess, based on very limited data, and made without any first hand knowledge of Iranian tactics. Military history is replete with examples of "this can't be done" followed by a very effective use of exactly that which was first dismissed. With all these caveats my conclusion is this: no, this does not look to me as an anti-surface strike aircraft.

HTH, cheers!

The Saker

VINEYARDSAKER: said...

@Masoud: The flights you see are of a scale model. Is that your guess, or is that what the commentary to the video said? The sound which I hear on the video does sound like a real, full-size, aircraft to me.

For the forseeable future, Iran's defense strategy will remain vested in it's growing missile arsenal. It's a good strategy, and there is no need to change it at the moment.

Agreed.

As for the radars: Iran has been improving on foreign radars since the opening the Iraq war. For understandable reasons, they don't market their advancements to other countries. Even so, they are likely much further along than are generally given credit for: the hacking and recovery of the RQ-170 sentinel proves at least that much.

Well, there is really no way to tell. The RQ-170 proves that the Iranians are really smart and technologically advanced. But does that prove that they could build the kind of radar we are discussing? Dunno.

The questions of the engine, overall size are interesting. Given the smaller size of the plane, maybe the've been able to build a much smaller engine

Frankly, that is hard to imagine. Even the Chinese with all their formidable industrial base are still relying on Russian engines for most of their aircraft. Engines for combat aircraft are immensely complicated, in particular high performance modern ones. I simply can't imagine that Iran could have made such a huge technological breakthrough(s) as to be capable of building such horrifyingly complex systems, but I might be mistaken, of course.

Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Saker,

The fact that the maneuvers shown were performed by scale models was strongly implied by the commentary in one of the videos. This particular video also showed the take off of a scale-model, which showed that it's wingspan was about one half of the runway's width.

I don't think that next to things which Iran has already shown itself capable of producing, such as solid fuel IRBM and space launch vehicles, radar's aren't particularly difficult challenge. The question really is how much resources would Iran have devoted to this task over the past thirty years? The answer is plenty, and they'll likely have something to show for it. I think we'd all be at a loss to explain how Iran managed to capture the sentinel without knowing it's there. The only two ways to know the sentinel was sent are that it was either able to completely penetrate US command and control infrastructure and know it was going to be sent, or else it was able to detect using their own infrastructure. I'd strongly lean toward the second hypotheses, which strongly implies that they have radars capable enough to detect high flying stealth drones. Now, that doesn't exactly 'prove' anything one way or the other, but I'm confident radars won't be Iran's stumbling point.

The real question is about the engine, which as you say is much more difficult to design and manufacture.

The facts are these:

Iran has been able to maintain and even upgrade it's fleet of f-4's f-5's and f-14's(which means GE's J79, J85 and PW's TF-30) without the support of the manufacturers for the past thirty years without resorting to the original manufacturers. It also signed an agreement to build RD-33's under license about six or seven years ago. If they don't plan on putting any of those in(and they might be able to do it with the the J-85), they must be planning to use something else. And if they are planning to use something else, it'll be something they developed themselves.


Masoud

VINEYARDSAKER: said...

@Masoud: I sure hope that you are right because if you are, then this aircraft would just be the tip of a much bigger technological iceberg. Building an advanced fighter is one of the most difficult technological challenges out there along with building an nuclear submarine (which are, in fact, even more "technology-intensive" than space vehicles). To build even a lightweight single-engine multirole fighter like the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen is a formidable technological challenge, and to do so under decades of ruthless sanctions would be a truly fantastic feat.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Iranians have the "brains" to do so, but I have a hard time imagining such a fast rate of progress with zero outside support. I mean even if the Russians and the Chinese did help, as they probably did, these are still such technology intensive projects that it takes years and years to bring them to fruition. Carlo is quite correct when he mentions all the difficulties with the Russians had with their SU-34 (or the USA with their F-35s, I would add).

So I can only conclude that what we saw was an early model and that it will take many many years until we see this aircraft actually deployed. But I really hope that I am wrong because if I am, that would mean that the sactions against Iran have totally failed :-)

Anonymous said...

So I can only conclude that what we saw was an early model and that it will take many many years until we see this aircraft actually deployed.

No doubt about that, it's just that I don't think we are talking about f22/f35 type timescales. Partly because this project is largely a continuation of the twin tailed F-5/Saqeh project, which undoubtedly served as a test bed for most of the subsystems that will wind up on the Qaher, but mostly because, aerodynamic design choices aside, this project is ultimately a much more modest endeavor than the fifth generation fighters you mention, and won't be needing an engine nearly as advanced as they have.

Masoud