According to the Jerusalem Post, Iran has begun series production of its "new" Lightning close-air-support fighter.
We placed that adjective in quotation marks for obvious reasons. Standard definitions of what constitutes a "new" aircraft don't necessarily apply to Iran. By Tehran's loose standards, the "Lighting" is new; by everyone else's definition, the aircraft is simply a re-manufactured F-5 Freedom Fighter that Iran purchased from the U.S. more than 30 years ago.
We've written about Iran's F-5 effort--and other boastful defense programs--over the past year. In every case, the "efforts of Iranian experts" fail to match Tehran's claims of some sort of defense break-through. The Lightning (or Azarakhsh, in Farsi) is simply an enlarged F-5 with a second vertical stabilizer and marginally better avionics. Various intel assessments indicate that Iran has about 50 F-5s left in its inventory; there are no indications as to how many of those airframes may be re-built as "Lightnings."
In terms of performance, the "new" fighter is still, essentially, an F-5, based on technology that is at least 40 years old. In a close-air-support role, the Lightning has a limited payload and loiter time--certainly, nothing on the order of an AH-64 Apache helicopter, or U.S. Air Force A-10. Iran claims that the Azarakhsh can drop a laser-guided, 2000-pound bomb; but test video released by Tehran showed the aircraft firing only a pair of rockets. In other words, the fire support offered to ground troops by the Iranian jet is modest, at best.
When test footage of the Azarakhsh was released last year, Iranian officials bragged that the "new" aircraft was similar to the U.S. F-18, "only more powerful." While the press dutifully reported that claim, it was immediately ridiculed (and dismissed) by defense experts, who recognized Tehran's fighter for what it was--a slightly modified F-5. It's worth noting that exaggerated claims about the Azarakhsh came from some of the same outlets (notably the Associated Press) that also published Iranian boasts about development of a "stealth" missile (in reality, a conventional missile covered with radar-absorbent paint that likely peeled off in flight), and it's new, high-speed torpedo (a World War II-era Russian design that works only against non-maneuvering targets, or those that don't employ counter-measures).
Admittedly, not every reporter who works for the AP or the Jerusalem Post has a background in military matters. But it would be helpful if editors did a bit more fact-checking before they publish Iran's latest defense claims. There's a world of difference between a modified F-5 and more modern fighters like the F-18, F-15, and F-16. Likewise, there's nothing to support the claim (found in today's Post article) that Iran is now planning for production of "fifth-generation" aircraft.
For those who don't follow military aviation, "fifth-generation fighter" is the term applied to state-of-the-art aircraft like the U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor (already in service) and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, now entering low-volume series production. The Raptor and the F-35 combine advanced avionics, weaponry and sensors in stealthy airframes built for super cruise (in the case of the F-22), or have the V/STOL capabilities found in the JSF.
It's a quantum leap from fourth-generation fighters (like the F-15, F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon and Russian Flanker models) to fifth-generation aircraft. So far, Iran has demonstrated a modest ability to modify third-generation jets from the 1960s and early 1970s. There is absolutely no evidence that Tehran could design--let alone, indigenously produce--a fourth-generation fighter, let alone something on the scale of JSF. On their current track, Iran will be ready for fifth-generation technology sometime in the latter half of this century. By that time, we'll be operating our seventh or eighth-generation of fighters--assuming that manned combat aircraft still exist at that juncture.
However, Iran's comments about producing "advanced" aircraft could be an allusion to another story that's been making the rounds. It's been recently reported that Moscow and Tehran are in talks for the sale of up to 250 advanced Flanker variants, to replace older U.S. fighters that form the backbone of the Iranian Air Force.
While we still have strong doubts about the viability of that deal, any sale would likely include a provision for "kit assembly" of SU-30s in Iran, or even "co-production" of the jets at an Iranian factory. Such agreements are common in aircraft sales; both Turkey and South Korea have built U.S. F-16s (under license) in their own factories, a move that helped both countries expand their aviation and technology base.
Russian marketers have tried to depict some Flanker variants as "fifth generation" fighters, and the Iranians would certainly accept that definition. While it doesn't meet western standards for fifth generation status, the SU-30 does incorporate rudimentary elements of stealth in its design, and it makes limited use of composite construction. So, Iranian comments about "planning for production" of fifth-generation planes may be a reference to the reported Flanker deal.
But that raises another question: if Iran is pursuing a Flanker agreement, why waste time with a re-engineered F-5? The answer may be two-fold: first, it allows Iran to make incremental improvements in its aerospace engineering and manufacturing capabilities, in advance of a SU-30 deal. And secondly, it may give Iranian engineers and technicians something to work on, while waiting for the first Flankers to arrive.
As we noted last week, Russian Flanker production is currently maxed-out with existing orders for China and India, among other customers. Without a major expansion of manufacturing facilities in Russia, Iran may have to wait years for large-scale deliveries of finished aircraft, or kits that can be assembled in-country. Until then, the "Lightning" program will serve as a stop-gap, both technologically and operationally.