The Iranian DIY aerospace sector

Added on 27 August 2010 by Tim Robinson

The unveiling of a new Iranian armed ‘drone’ or UAV named the ‘Karrar’ last week produced predictable responses – scorn and laughter from some ‘experts’ and fear from tabloid headline writers about this ‘ambassador of death’ from Tehran.

Some news sources even uncritically repeated the Iranian assertion that the four metre long UAV can carry four cruise missiles – a feat surprising given that it is the size of what the West would describe as cruise missile itself.

Of course – as some commentators have already noted – the main audience for this is not the West – but Iran’s population - showing its people that ‘anything the US can do – we can do too’.

The Karrar UAV itself – thought to be based on a modified South African target drone is certainly inventive – with the original design, it seems, flipped upside down. Iran claims a range of 620miles for this UAV, and that it can carry two 250lb bombs or one 500lb munition.  Carriage of ‘cruise missiles’ is likely to refer perhaps to anti-surface missiles. However, the lack of a sensor ball or turret raises questions over how any guided munitions might be aimed.

Another question is command and control over long distances. Without the customary ‘hump’ seen on Global Hawk, Predator and other western UAVs, which hides a large Satcom antenna, control of the Karrar beyond line-of-sight radio links is likely to be non-existent. Man-in-the-loop it certainly isn’t. Instead, it is likely to be pre-programmed on a fixed route and without a sensor window, weapon release may be based on crude GPS positioning or even a simple timer à la the V-1 Doodlebug.

However, sniggering aside on Heath-Robinson UCAVs, dig a little deeper and a closer look at the Iranian aerospace industry reveals an interesting facet of its DIY sector. That of ‘reverse engineering’ and, incremental improvements all of which is slowly building up a solid core of aerospace knowledge and expertise in the country.

Iranian F-14 - still in service

Cut off from the world since 1979 and with limited help from China, Russia and North Korea, Iran has been forced to develop an indigenous aerospace capability. It has already demonstrated some technical skill in keeping its F-14 Tomcat fleet operational – some 31 years after the revolution. Indeed – necessity drove Iran to develop an air-launched version of the Hawk SAM to equip its Tomcats.

FLIR display in Iranian upgraded AH-1 Cobra

Additionally there have been local modifications to F-4s, reverse engineered Bell 214s and upgraded Bell AH-1 Cobras with a new FLIR turret.

More ambitious projects have included the Saeqeh-80 – a modified Northrop F-5 with twin tails and squared-off intakes, as well as the Azarakhsh seen in 2008, which turns the F-5 into a mid-winged fighter.

Azarakhsh fighter - mid-winged development of the F-5 or clever photoshop fake?

Further projects include an advanced trainer (which, from photos, may be similar to the Yak-140/M-346,) the Shahed 278 light helicopter as well as licensed production of the An-140 by the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA). Indeed Iran is now looking to widen its horizons - with exports on the agenda.

Of course, with restrictions on freedom of information it is difficult to assess in full these projects and how successful they may be. However, technical papers from Iran’s aeronautical academics and specialists are published from time-to-time in the Royal Aeronautical Society’s The Aeronautical Journal, the oldest and most well respected academic aerospace publication. Peer-reviewed, it rejects more papers than it accepts and in the past five years it has seen a significant increase in the number of papers from Iran. Being published then, in this august Journal dispproves the view that the Iranian aerospace sector is a bunch of Scrapheap Challenge tinkerers.

Picture of Iranian indigenously-developed glass cockpit.

The Iranian aerospace industry has also been careful not to overreach itself – with too grandiose schemes that stand no chance of success. Pragmatism rather than pure pomp has driven Iranian aerospace projects. In contrast, for example, India’s HAL Tejas LCA fighter has seen a protracted development and is now only just about to trickle into service.

Thus hyperbole and propaganda aside - these projects are helping Iranian engineers and scientists build up a core of aeronautical expertise at relatively low-risk (both for the projects and for their lives).

Another interesting aspect is that while the Karrar armed UAV is not in the class of BAE Systems’ Taranis, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B or Boeing’s Phantom Ray – it shows how deeply the current trend of UAV warfare has infiltrated the mindset of leaders around the world, (and this is from a country which has access to cheap, biped, organic ‘smart weapons’ – or suicide bombers as they are otherwise known). Furthermore even advanced countries can get UAVs wrong – the UK’s Phoenix UAV was known as the ‘bugger-off’ by the British Army due to its tendency to head for the nearest trees or high ground and not return.

It may be then, that with fewer resources and a difficult customer in the Mullahs to satisfy – Iranian engineers could teach the West something about ‘spiral development’ and keeping costs down.

Stealth fighter mock-up to impress the boss, UCAV, or indication of future thinking?

It has to be remembered, too, that closed societies sometimes do produce wonder weapons, through a combination of innovation and desperation. Witness the Nazi projects in the dying months of WW2 with jet fighters, rocket interceptors and missiles. Apartheid era South Africa too, maintained a robust defence industry, one that now produces an attack helicopter, UAVs and missiles. Indeed its mini-resistant Buffalo APC was ahead of its time and has now been widely copied for use in Afghanistan.

Given this slow but steady growth in aerospace knowledge and technical skills – one wonders what the Iranian aerospace industry might be capable of under a more different regime?

from the Royal Aeronautical Society

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