Stealth aircraft programmes are not exactly numerous right now. The only operational stealth types at the moment are the USAF’s small fleets of B-2A Spirit bombers and F-22A Raptor fighters, and the only one on the horizon is the struggling F-35 programme. China has demonstrated the slightly confusing J-20, a large fighter with a degree of stealth, while Russia’s PAK FA is fast and agile but better classed as low observable than stealth; in either case both the Chinese and Russian designs are probably at least ten years from entering service, if they ever do. The fact is that building a stealth aircraft is a hugely expensive project, beyond the reach of any but the best funded air forces.
Could there be a surprising new kid on the stealth block, though? While the combined resources of the USA and UK struggle to complete F-35 development, a new design has just been exhibited in Iran and according to local media it’s going to enter service with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.
Right, let’s back up a moment. Iran? Building a stealth aircraft? Is that even possible? Well, it’s not out of the question. Iran does have an aviation industry, mostly based on factories built with US aid while the Shah was still in power. It’s this infrastructure that’s allowed Iran to keep so much of its fleet of 1970s US hardware in the air and, in theory at least, it allows them to design and build their own fast jet types.
In fact Iran has already developed at least two fast jets and they’re in service with the IRIAF. The first announcement of an indigenous fighter was the HESA Azarakhsh (Lightning,) which entered mass production in 1997. A successor design, the HESA Saeqeh-80, entered service in 2007 and has been billed as an F/A-18-class multi-role combat aircraft. The HESA Shafaq is an advanced trainer/light strike design with an advanced cockpit and stealth features.
Now the AIO Qaher F-313, unveiled by Iranian President Ahmedinijad on 1 February 2013, seems to put Iran’s aircraft industry squarely in the first rank. Features of the F-313 are reported to include excellent manoeuvrability and low altitude performance, capability against both air and ground targets and a high degree of stealth performance. Twin weapons bays give it an armament of two 2,000 pound bombs, a variety of lighter guided and unguided air to surface ordnance or up to six AAMs in the AMRAAM class, most likely the Vympel R-77 or the Chinese-made PL-12. Will the further development and mass production of this aircraft catapult Iran into the big league of advanced defence manufacturing?
In a word, no. Like the other products of the Iranian “aircraft industry” over the past 15 years, the Qaher F-313 isn’t a plane; it’s a publicity stunt. The Azarakhsh is believed to be nothing more than a reverse engineered F-5 Tiger II, but despite having entered “mass production” in 1997 only a dozen – split into up to five “generations” – are believed to exist. Most likely the Azarakhsh is just an F-5, possibly from the ex-ARVN batch Iran bought from Vietnam, fitted with some Russian avionics. A couple of them have had the wing moved from low to mid mounted while retaining the same planform. Never mind; it’s not an operational type.
The Saeqeh-80, on the other hand, has been seen in photos. Far from being in the F/A-18 class, as claimed, it’s very obviously an F-5 crudely converted to a twin-tail configuration. Whether it’s reverse engineered or modified from an existing airframe it very clearly isn’t a new design. Two dozen have been built if you believe the IRIAF, but a more likely figure (and the most ever seen in the same place at once) is four. As for the Shafaq, forget it. Nothing exists except a heap of propaganda material and a wind tunnel model. The Shafaq has never flown and never will.
And that brings us to the Qaher F-313. Is the sleek black prototype that Ahmedinijad called “one of the world’s most sophisticated fighter jets” a real plane? Not a chance. It’s not even big enough; the “pilot” sitting in it during the demo had his knees above the cockpit rim. The airframe is implausible from both the stealth and aerodynamic points of view; fixed canards are inherently unstealthy, as is the thick wing airfoil, and the combination of large twin stabilisers and cranked-down wingtip extensions makes no sense whatsoever. The nose is plainly too small to hold a radar, so those PL-12s won’t be locking on to anything, and in fact there is no trace of any external sensor at all. The intakes are too small to feed whatever engine supposedly lurks inside that fuselage, and their bizarre placement far back on the upper side of the wing root extensions is just begging for a flameout at any significant angle of attack. The engine apparently has no tailpipe and the surrounding structure was clearly hot-glued together from sheets of plywood.
If any doubts remained that the Qaher F-313 was a crude hoax, Iran was kind enough to dispel them by releasing high-resolution shots of the cockpit. The airspeed indicator reveals that this “sophisticated fighter jet” has a never exceed speed of about 260 knots, making it significantly slower than a 1937 Hawker Hurricane Mark I (295 knots.) In fact the entire avionics fit is cobbled together from instruments typically found in light – and even home-built – aircraft, with not a military system in sight. There’s no HUD and no sign of the electronics to support an F-35 style helmet display. Just to add insult to injury the canopy is moulded from lightweight low-quality acetate sheet – it’s practically opaque, too – and shows no sign of any clamps to keep it closed, and the cockpit sides reveal the interior of the flimsy fibreglass mouldings that make up the forward fuselage. The F-313 is a propaganda mock-up, it’s never flown and it never will. Or will it?
Footage of it in flight has been released, and last week an Iranian news agency published a photo of a shiny new F-313 patrolling over MountDamavand in Iran’s Alborz Mountains. Real? No. The video footage is clearly of a small radio-controlled model and the glossy photo was swiftly traced to a shot of the F-313 from its unveiling, a stock photo of Mt.Damavand from image site PickyWallpapers.com and that Iranian propaganda favourite, Adobe Photoshop.
I can never quite figure out for whose benefit Iran does this. It certainly isn’t for western military analysts, because none of us are fooled. Educated Iranians aren’t likely to be convinced either, and regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and Iraq are familiar enough with the combat aircraft market to join in the howls of laughter every time Tehran announces a new development. Presumably the aim is to boost the regime’s status among the badly educated masses who make up Ahmadinejad’s support base. Whatever the case, though, don’t bet on the Qaher 313 – or any other Iranian stealth aircraft – beating the F-35 into service.