November 12, 2020

Iran says it is developing ‘offensive’ combat airpower

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Iranian armed forces are preparing to improve their combat airpower. Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Amir Hatami, who is responsible for Iran’s military procurement, *announced agreements with China and Russia to “modernize air force systems and equipment” on October 19. The Islamic Republic *has sought to develop “offensive” air capabilities since 2017 but needs external help to upgrade its fleet. The US Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that the regime would seek to purchase fourth-generation fighter jets and armed drones after the expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran in October 2020.

Iran’s conventional air force is conducting training exercises to prepare for its evolving role. The air force has *exercised *conventional capabilities three times since September, *emphasizing intercepting, bombing, and electronic warfare operations and, for the first time, using unmanned aerial vehicles for *bombing and *“suicide” drone operations. The regime previously used drones for targeting Kurdish militants with surface-to-surface missiles in northern Iraq. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) also test-dropped glide bombs against naval targets in July and tested air-launching ballistic missiles in May. These military exercises are not new, but their focus and timing indicate that Iran is prioritizing the development of conventional airpower.

A more capable air force would help Iran pursue its objectives in Syria. The air force’s involvement in Syria has been limited thus far but could expand to defend the Bashar al Assad regime and reduce Iranian reliance on Russian airpower. Competition with Russia to secure economic and political advantages there has grown as the Syrian conflict potentially enters a reconstruction phase. Greater conventional airpower could grant Tehran leverage to assert more influence and military strength independent of Moscow.