Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Closing Down the Parts Store

A hat tip to Sharon Weinberger at the Danger Room, for this item on Congressional efforts to prevent the possible sale of F-14 parts to Iran. As Flightglobal.com reported yesterday, the House of Representatives has voted to ban the Pentagon from selling Tomcat spares to anyone but museums. The legislation is aimed at making it harder for Iran--the only other nation with the F-14s--to buy parts and keep its Tomcats in the air.

With the U.S. Navy's recent retirement of its last F-14s, there are (presumably) more spare parts available, and Iran would certainly like to buy them. According to recent intelligence reports, fewer than 10 of Tehran's Tomcats are still flyable (out of 60 that were originally purchased in the 1970s, before the Islamic Revolution). Of the handful of F-14s that remain airworthy, many lack working radars and other key components, rendering them virtually useless in air combat.

Making matters worse, Iran's entire inventory of active-radar "Phoenix" missiles is also assessed as inoperable, leaving the Tomcats without their vaunted long-range weapon. The Iranian F-14s still carry older versions of the radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow and the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder (which is IR-guided), but they're no match for the advanced missiles found on U.S. and Israeli jets. Still, the parts restriction is probably a good idea, since existing gaps in Pentagon sales policies allowed buyers for China, Iran and other countries to obtain sensitive equipment for the F-14, along with other aircraft and missile systems. Law enforcement sources tell the Associated Press that at least one batch of spare U.S. parts actually made its way to Iran.

On the other hand, you've got to wonder how much the Chinese (or the Iranians) could actually gain from F-14 technology. In terms of keeping jets in the air, a few parts here and there won't make much difference. The number of "flyable" Tomcats in Iran has declined steadily over the past decade, suggesting that whatever Iran was buying on the black/gray arms market, it wasn't enough to sustain--let alone improve--their mission-capability (MC) rates.

And from the technology-exploitation perspective, engineers at various R&D centers in China might welcome the chance to examine the Tomcat's AWG-9 radar, or put a Phoenix missile on a test bench. But there's actually a much easier way for the Chinese--or anyone else--to access that technology. Just pick up the phone and call the folks at Mikoyan, or what once was Russia's premier aircraft design bureau. In the late 1970s, Mikoyan introduced the MiG-31 Foxhound, with features/capabilities that were remarkably similar to the F-14. Like the Tomcat, the Foxhound had a long-range, electronically-scanned phase-array air intercept radar (nicknamed Flashdance), which supported a long-range missile, the AA-9/AMOS.

The Russians eventually built more than 150 Foxhounds, and there were unconfirmed reports that later MiG-31 upgrades were supported by a "captured" F-14, reportedly obtained from Iran after the 1979 revolution. Russia also tried to export the Foxhound (without success) and even offered the weapons system to the PRC in the early 1990s. Suffice it to say, there's a decent chance that Chinese scientists and technicians have already been exposed to F-14 technology, or at least Russia's version of it. Buying a few spare parts through arms brokers would be cheaper, but it's no substitute for buying an entire weapons system. And did we mention that F-14 technology is more than 30 years old?

We're also a bit puzzled about the scope of the House measure (which still requires Senate approval). From what we can tell, the bill is aimed almost exclusively at preventing the possible sale of F-14 parts. That's all well and good, but Iran also operates a number of other U.S.-made systems which pose a (potentially) greater threat to U.S. and allied military forces. But the legislation--from what I can tell--really doesn't address

For example, the aging F-4 Phantom II remains the front-line interceptor for the Iranian Air Force; there are probably 30-40 that are operational on a daily basis, roughly six times the number of flyable F-14s. Obviously, Phantom technology is even more dated than the Tomcat, but in terms of a numerical threat, we'd be advised to put the squeeze on Iran's efforts to buy F-4 parts. Ditto for spare missiles, launchers and components for the I-HAWK surface-to-air missile system, also purchased from the U.S. in the 1970s. More than a dozen I-HAWK batteries are still operational in Iran, and the system remains the backbone of Tehran's air defense system.

Of course, we sold the F-4 and the I-HAWK to practically everyone, so stemming sales of those spares would be much more difficult. As we learned during the Iran-Contra scandal, Tehran could rely on a number of sources for parts for U.S. made equipment, with (and without) our approval. To some degree, many of those pipelines are open to this day, so it would take some heavy lifting from legislators, diplomats and law enforcement to preventing Iran from buying rebuilt F-4 engines, or refurbished seekers for its I-HAWKS.

The difficulty of that proposition is one of the main reasons that the House bill is focusing on F-14 parts. The idea looks good on paper (and makes for a good sound-bite), but it also ignores the larger problem, associated with older--but lethal--military technology that still makes its way to Iran.


ADDENDUM: The Iran technology measure is being co-sponsored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, whose new-found concern for security is a bit ironic. Two years ago, Mr. Wyden exposed a highly classified U.S. satellite intelligence system in open Senate debate, in an effort to kill the program. Saying that Senator Wyden's security concerns are misplaced might be an understatement.

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