Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Iran's Big Fly-By

The Jerusalem Post reports that Iran will stage the largest air parade in its history on Thursday. But the display will be less impressive than it might appear.

At least 140 aircraft will participate in the event, part of the annual "Army Day" celebration. The Iranian Air Force commander, General Muhammad Alavi, told local reporters that the parade will "reveal the power of the Iranian armed forces to defend their homeland."

Among the aircraft expected for the fly-by are MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters; F-14 Tomcats; "Sukhois" (a likely reference to SU-24 Fencer strike fighters or SU-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft); aerial tankers, "interceptors" and Boeing 707 and 747 passenger planes.

Air parades aren't normally an intelligence boon, unless they are used to reveal a new plane, helicopter or other airborne system. Still, it will be interesting to tally the number of various airframes appearing in the event. Mission-capable rates for much of the Iran's air fleet--including its fighter squadrons--are rather low. It would be remarkable if tomorrow's fly-by includes more than 3-4 F-14s, a similar number of SU-24s, and slightly larger formations of MiG-29s and SU-25s.

In fact, Iran's most capable fighters (in terms of sorties flown and generation rates) are their elderly, U.S.-built F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Freedom Fighters. Tehran is believed to have 20-30 operational F-4s and 40-50 F-5s, which form the backbone of their interceptor and ground support squadrons.

Obviously, not all of those planes will appear in the Army Day parade. And that begs and obvious question: how will Tehran generate 140 aircraft for the fly-by? With a generous helping of helicopters, special mission aircraft (say, Iran's two SIGINT platforms) and civilian jetliners, Iran can probably reach the desired total. But there isn't much room for error on the military side, given the relatively small number of combat-capable jets and lackluster mission-ready rates.

In terms of quality, Thursday's event will also be lacking. The newest planes slated for display are the Russian-built fighters--and some of them were confiscated from Iraq almost 20 years ago. Iran may use the event to showcase its new "Lightning" fighter, but that aircraft is nothing more than a rebuilt, 40-year-old F-5 with slightly improved avionics and a second vertical stabilizer.

To beef up the parade, Iran could try a tactic that worked for the Soviet Union, in the early days of the Cold War. As part of a massive military parade through Red Square, large formations of Soviet bombers flew overhead. The number of bombers that appeared was much higher than U.S. estimates, touching off a minor panic in the intelligence community. How did the Russians build so many bombers without being detected?

The answer, as we later learned, was simple. Russia didn't have that many bombers. Instead, the same aircraft kept circling, repeatedly passing over Red Square. No one bother to check the fuselage numbers (or other similarities), so the ruse went undetected for years.

Will Iran try the same trick in Thursday's parade? Today, the deception would be easy to spot, but that might not be enough to deter Tehran. After all, tomorrow's air event is aimed largely at Iran's neighbors and the western press, groups that will be less discriminating in analyzing the fly-by.


Storms24 said...

I thought about the old "circle round the Square" trick, too... And while I agree the nation could probably generate a 140-tail sortie, the real feat will not be for the MX-group or pilots but rather the C2 group. Can you imagine the ATC trying to manage that airspace?? It'll be interesting to see what blocks they use as well... Will they play it safe and keep a wide separation between airframes or will the much more impressive low-level routes be approved for that crowd-pleasing show of force?

(Even more fun is to speculate on the fall-out if there should be an aircraft "incident" that results in a huge fireball! After so much publicity and grandstanding, if there are any foul-ups I'd think the term "heads will roll" would gain a much more literal interpretation within the IRIAF!)

Sean Meade said...

i hope you have a chance to follow up on this. very interesting.

PCSSEPA said...

Iranian Air Force...yawn