Iran's claim that its new Simorgh aircraft, a small transport plane, can be used for close air support shows it can't afford to modernize its air force with jet fighters.
Iran has shown off a new light transport aircraft, which it says was "designed and developed by experts at the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company [HESA]" and unveiled last Thursday in the "presence of high-ranking dignitaries." HESA is the same company that makes the Ababil line of drones for Iran.
HESA has its origins in the era before the Iranian Islamic Revolution and used to build helicopters. On the one hand, the appearance of this new aircraft shows Iran can build planes. On the other hand, the regime has been trying to do this for years, and the fact that it can only build planes like this shows how many challenges the regime faces. This unveiling of a new aircraft is actually evidence of failure, not success.
The new aircraft was dubbed "Simorgh," a name it apparently shares with the Shahed-171 drone. It's not clear why they gave the aircraft the same name, although Press TV in Iran says Simorgh is "a benevolent bird in Persian mythology and literature." The news outlet went on to say, "The aircraft was showcased during an impressive ceremony in the central Iranian city of Isfahan in the presence of Iran's Defense Minister Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, Vice President for Science and Technology Sourena Sattari, President of the Civil Aviation Organization Ali Abedzadeh and other senior officials."
Reports at Fars News in Iran give some details about the aircraft. Iranian media calls it the latest achievement of the Ministry of Defense. That means it's not a bragging point for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which maintains its own parallel state in Iran.
The aircraft has been "redesigned" and is supposedly tailored to meet the needs of the military. It isn't clear how many of these aircraft Iran has. With the ability to carry six tons, it is in some ways similar to the Dash 8 Q400 series once made by Bombardier. It is based on the Antonov An-140, a turboprop that has been around since the 1990s and licensed to be built in Iran.
The plane is supposed to be able to support military transport needs and also perform tactical and relief missions. The origins of the aircraft, Iranian media say, lie in cooperation with Ukraine's Antonov decades ago.
"In cooperation with the Ukrainian aircraft industry [Antonov], they agreed to produce a prototype passenger aircraft with a propeller engine or turboprop in Iran," Fars News said. It's not entirely clear when this happened, but the article says that Iran sought to build its own aircraft back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the war with Iraq had ended.
"Various companies from around the world participated in the tender, Antonov, CASA, Ilyushin, ATR, Tupolev and Saab were invited to participate in the tender. But due to international sanctions, only Antonov was the only successful candidate for the project," Iran's media said.
Iran's media also report that this came in the context of the breakup of the Soviet Union. Iran's aviation industry, which under the Shah had ample support from the West and particularly US companies, was suffering. Ukraine, which needed business in the 1990s, was willing to cooperate.
"Ukraine also welcomed this cooperation and it was decided that this work should be done inside our country," the report says. A prototype aircraft flew in 1999 and the contract production was given to HESA, which had experience in aircraft and helicopters. Fars News said that in December 2002, an Antonov An-140 crashed in Iran, killing 44 people. Other accidents led Iran to ban flights for this aircraft. The role of the aircraft was then changed to be used for military transport.
"We have a vast country and we desperately need a light transport aircraft, I hope we can introduce this aircraft soon and prepare it for ground and flight tests," said the director general of the Iranian Aviation Industry Organization.
The new version of this aircraft is 23 meters (75 feet) long. It can carry light vehicles and perform various missions. The article says that the previous version, based on the Ukrainian aircraft, was not compatible with Iranian conditions, such as the climate in Iran.
"Looking at the design of Simorgh aircraft, it can be seen that this new Iranian bird has experienced changes in the fuselage and design. The most important change is the addition of a ramp and changes to the rear wings of the aircraft," the article says. The engine has been optimized for Iranian weather and tests will reportedly take place over the next six months.
Iran is facing a problem replacing aircraft, according to the article. It notes the aging fleet of the aircraft, including old Boeing 707 aircraft which media claim are used for electronic warfare.
"It should be replaced with newer versions, of which Simorgh could be one," the article says. "In the case of air support, the low cost of flying turboprop aircraft compared to fighter jets can also make up for the shortfall in the armed forces."
The point here is that Iran can't acquire new jet warplanes, so it is considering using a propeller plane for close air support. The whole nature of this claim is that Iran is suffering grievously from sanctions and the resulting economic problems, and cannot modernize its air force. Iran can't seem to acquire military technology from Russia, China or other countries. As such, its abilities are limited when it comes to conventional forces.
That doesn't mean Iran isn't a threat, but it means that when it comes to conventional weaponry like aircraft and tanks, the country faces huge hurdles. It is fortunate that it is bordered by countries that have even more problems, including Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran has recently agreed to open a factory to build drones in Tajikistan.
Iran is proud that its new aircraft has helped to create 10,000 new jobs during a time of inflation and economic uncertainty. The new production has helped in "acquiring knowledge of designing and manufacturing 30,000 parts and aircraft systems, complex and large assemblies, test and testing systems and compiling more than a thousand volumes of documents are other advantages of this project."
The media note that the plane is also needed because Iran's large land area is subject to floods and natural disasters, and the need for a light transport aircraft are clear. There is no doubt Iran needs more aircraft. That it has taken decades to produce any aircraft of note illustrates Iran's real problem.
The regime likes to boast of its capabilities. However, articles like this about the struggle to produce a new plane show the difficulty Iran has in providing basic necessities for its people and military. Perhaps if the IRGC wasn't siphoning off resources and running a parallel state, wasting Iran's resources on propping up militias throughout the Middle East, then Iran might be able to have normal things like transport aircraft.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.