Iran's Mig-29s

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

In the past it has been said several times that, even today, although 44 years have passed since the Islamic Revolution which dethroned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the backbone of the IRIAF's first combat line is still made up of American-made aircraft (and their derivatives locals). However, it is necessary to add that, in the last 34 years, the component of aircraft of Soviet/Russian origin has managed to carve out an important place in the sun, alongside the already mentioned US component (although up to now it has never been equaled from the point of view numeric!).

To those who have only noticed the Iranian interest in Russian aircraft today, in the light of the rumors that they would give (here the conditional is a must given the past!) for the imminent transfer of 24 Sukhoi Su-35S from Moscow to Tehran , it should be remembered that the process of acquiring Soviet/Russian aircraft by the Persian state actually began as early as 1989. At that time, the authorities of the Islamic Republic were engaged not only in the work of economic reconstruction of the country, which had just an 8-year long war against the Iraqi neighbor, but also in the renewal of its military capabilities, heavily worn out and compromised during the long and unproductive conflict. The Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) in particular had suffered overall loss of as much as 52% of the total number of fighter-bombers which they had received from the United States in the two decades preceding the 1979 revolution. The survivors were all heavily worn out and/or completely inoperative or only partially operational.

The main architect of the rebirth of the "wings of Iran" was the then commander of the IRIAF, Brigadier General Mansour Sattari, who led the Persian blue army from 1986 (in the last phase of the Iran-Iraq War) until his death in a plane crash that occurred on January 5, 1985.

Sattari soon understood that, if Iran wanted to "fly again", the IRIAF renewal initiative had to proceed along two parallel tracks:

- first: the country had to speed up the development process of industrial capabilities necessary for the maintenance and updating of American aircraft that have already been in service for some time;

- second: the deployment of aircraft already available had to be supplemented by rates of new planes purchased in China and the Soviet Union.

In 1989, following a visit to the Soviet Union by the then Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an agreement was negotiated between Moscow and Tehran for the supply of the new Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-29 fourth generation Soviet fighters.

The Iranian choice was the natural response to what the Iraqis had done two years earlier, who had purchased the same aircraft in 1987. Driven by the need to strengthen its Air Force (IrAF) during the last phase of the Iran-Iraq War, Baghdad had negotiated the supply of 137 Mig-29s but due to payment problems it was only able to purchase 35- 37 (the sources consulted present slight discrepancies). The Mig-29s arrived too late to make a useful contribution to the Iraqi war effort and, although they flew several combat missions during 1988, they did not shoot down any enemy aircraft and failed in the slightest to prevent the deep sorties of the Iranian F-4s which they continued to strike Iraqi targets located in the Baghdad area until the last day of the war.

At the time of the Gulf War the Iraqis had one squadron of fully operational Mig-29s and a second one nearing completion but both were devastated by the air offensive by the forces of the International Coalition. The losses suffered during the war, the desertions in Iran and the subsequent stringent embargo which prevented Iraq from procuring the necessary spare parts abroad finally caused the disappearance from service of the Iraqi Mig-29s, whose surviving specimens were definitively placed grounded in 1995.

Based on the agreements made by the Iranian leaders with their Soviet counterparts, Moscow agreed to supply the Islamic Republic with a first tranche of 14 Mig-29A and 6 Mig-29UB (opening photo) to be allocated to the IRIAF and another 11 Mig-29A to be allocated to the Pasdaran.

At the same time, the Soviets also sold 150 R-27R semi-active radar-guided air-to-air missiles, 400 R-60MK infrared-guided air-to-air missiles and 300 R-73E infrared-guided air-to-air missiles (in addition to the also the related launch rails), 40 ventral fuel tanks and a large number of launchers for B-8M unguided rockets and free-fall bombs belonging to the FAB series.

Under the agreement, the USSR would also take care of the training of Iranian pilots and technicians. Among them, those from the IRIAF were all veterans of the Iran-Iraq War and had previously been trained in the United States to fly F-5s, F-4s and even F-14s while those assigned to the Pasdaran had had flying experience in East Germany, China and North Korea in anticipation of the delivery of the Mig-21 and F-7 to AFAGIR (the Aerospace Force of the Pasdaran) before those plans fell through. Soviet instructors found the quality of the pilots and technicians of the Pasdaran particularly poor, and only three of them were allowed to stay and complete the course, subsequently being incorporated into the ranks of the IRIAF contingent.

The deliveries of the aircraft proceeded expeditiously if we exclude the loss of a Mig-29A which crashed while it was carrying out the transfer flight (with the death of the Soviet pilot) and was promptly replaced by a new specimen paid for by Moscow.

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the danger of an expansion of the conflict following the mobilization of the American-led International Coalition led the Iranians to order a second batch of 10 aircraft as an emergency regime while the Pasdaran made the decision to renounce the introduction of the mighty twin-engine and gave all their aircraft to the IRIAF which, initially, concentrated all the Mig-29s to the Tactical Fighter Base 1 (TFB 1) of Mehrabad with air defense duties over the airspace of the Iranian capital.

During the Gulf War, during which Persian Mig-29s were used in several "shows of force" along the borders of the country's airspace both against Iraq and against the International Coalition, the Iranians received a great number of Iraqi aircraft, both civilian and military, fleeing airports in their homeland under attack. Among them there was also an unknown number of Mig-29 and 4 (3 single-seaters and 1 two-seater) have been identified with certainty.

The identified ex-Iraqi MiG-29s bore Iraqi serial numbers 29032, 29038, 29044 and 29004 which were replaced by new Iranian serial numbers 3-6132, 3-6133, 3-6104 and 3-6307.

In light of the lessons taught by the conflict, and having realized the potential of a renewed air power, in 1992 Tehran's leaders ordered a large number of fixed-wing aircraft from Moscow, among which were: a pair of A-50 "Mainstay ”, 12 Tupolev Tu-22M “Backfire”, 24 Mig-27 “Flogger-D”, 24 Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker”, 24 Mig-31 “Foxhound-A” and as well 48 further Mig-29A/UB “Fulcrum -A/B”. However the collapse of the Soviet Union postponed indefinitely the implementation of the contract and the new Russia of Boris Yeltsin that emerged from the ashes of the USSR was so weak in the early 90s that it gave in to American pressure and blocked any military collaboration with the Islamic Republic of Iran in compliance with the sanctions regime approved since the then Clinton administration.

Iran therefore found itself in possession of about 45 Mig-29s (when it comes to Iranian matters the sources, as usual, differ) and with them 2 operational squadrons were finally equipped:

-11o TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) based at Tactical Fighter Base 1 (TFB 1) Mehrabad;

-23o TFS (Tactical Fighter Squadron) based at Tactical Fighter Base 2 (TFB 2) in Tabriz.

During the 90s and the early years of the new millennium, the embargo placed on the supply of spare parts caused by Russia's accession to the sanctions regime against Iran caused many problems for the Persians. Nonetheless, Tehran has managed to keep the Mig-29s in service, despite a thousand difficulties, as well as other types of aircraft of Soviet origin thanks to spare parts supplied under the table by Ukraine. Furthermore, whenever the Iranian Mig-29 airframes needed a complete overhaul, Belarus was happy to carry out the necessary overhauls and repairs in its own aeronautical factories for a hefty fee in hard currency. At first, in the years following 1992, due to Moscow's refusal, the Iranians tried to increase the number of Mig-29s in their possession by turning to other potential suppliers, especially in the ex-Soviet space, laying their eyes on the specimens placed in reserve from Ukraine and Moldova. However, the purchase of 40 surplus Ukrainian specimens as well as that of 21 Moldovan specimens placed in reserve fell through once again due to American pressure (in the case of Moldova, the USA even managed to purchase the 21 specimens under negotiation, together with more than 500 air-to-air missiles, in order not to let them fall into the hands of the Iranians, in an agreement that was finalized on October 10, 1997).

In any case, after having learned to know all the technical characteristics of their aircraft in depth, thanks to the first years of use, the Iranians ended up cooling their enthusiasm in relation to the Mig-29, considering it overall less performing than the F-14 , especially in BVR engagements, and decided not to undertake further attempts to expand the fleet and instead focus on its maintenance and upgrading.

Even today, experts debate which version of the MiG-29 was actually delivered to the Iranians. If, as regards the two-seater training cars, the identification is unambiguous and leads to the Mig-29UB (Product 9.51) characterized by the absence of radar and with only the infrared sensor mounted, for the single-seaters the sources disagree, with some inclined for the Mig-29A (Product 9.12A) while others for the Mig-29A (Product 9.12B) The differences between the two models are as follows:

-the Mig-29A (Product 9.12A) was an export version specially developed by the USSR for the Warsaw Pact countries equipped with a RPLK-29E Phazotron radar usable in 3 radar modes against the 5 of the Mig N019 Rubin Phazotron radars -29A (Product 9.12) Soviet. The aircraft of this version were also equipped with degraded OEPrNK-29E optoelectronic systems, as well as older Laszlo navigation, ECM and IFF systems. Finally, they lacked the ability to deliver nuclear weapons;

-the Mig-29A (Product 9.12B) was a further degraded export version developed for foreign customers less politically "close" to the Soviet Union. The aircraft of this version lacked ECM and IFF systems and did not have digital data transmission capability. Furthermore, the N019E radar was characterized by even lower capabilities.

Starting from their bases in Mehrabad and Tabriz, the two IRIAF Mig-29 squadrons have never ceased, in over thirty years of activity, to monitor the skies of the capital and of the areas of Iran located on the border with the Turkey, especially whenever the Turkish Armed Forces have violated Iranian borders in their operations against the Kurdish PKK guerrillas. However, if we exclude the rare "shows of force" on the occasion of major international crises involving Iran and the regular operations of interception and shooting down of drones of the most disparate origins that have violated Iranian airspace since at least the early 2012s (missions involving practically all types of fighter-bombers in service in Iran), it does not appear that they have ever been used in real "war missions". In any case given the growing process of obsolescence of cells and weapon systems, in 29 the heads of the Iranian Armed Forces (Artesh) also approved for the Mig-29 (as well as for the other models of fighter-bombers in service) a powerful multi-year update plan still in progress. From what has emerged so far, the update program that should guarantee the Mig-20s to remain in service and competitive also in the next XNUMX years includes:

- various repair and revitalization interventions on engines and airframes such as to considerably extend their operational life;

- a substantial avionics upgrade package including the installation of new electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems;

- the modernization of weapon and fire control systems (FCS);

- a new inertial navigation system (INS);

- a friend-foe interrogation system (IFF);

- new VHF/UHF radios;

- the installation of new multifunctional digital screens (LCD) for the management of on-board systems;

- the installation of an in-flight refueling probe and the increase of the capacity of the internal tanks by eliminating a series of redundant subsystems and structures;

- the development and installation (thanks to Indian support) of new drop tanks to be installed on the wing pylons;

- the ability to use the new versions of the R-60, R-73, R-27 (especially the R-27T, R-27ET, R-27ER, R-27EA) and R-77EA air-to-air missiles of Russian origin -XNUMX;

- the installation of AIM-9 and AIM-7 of American origin;

- the enhancement of ground attack capabilities through the possibility of using new types of free-fall bombs of 250, 500 and 1000 kg, laser-guided bombs and JDAM-type bombs (the latter developed with the help of North Korea );

- approval for the launch of 9A Qadr electro-optical targeting bombs and TV/IR guided bombs of the Ghassed series;

- the possibility of launching Iranian-made Shafaq unguided rockets (inspired by the Russian S-24 240 mm rockets) which can be armed with different types of warheads (HE, fragmentation, anti-bunker, anti-runway, etc.. .);

- the ability to use new cruise missiles (Iranian sources explicitly mention the Nasr-1, Kowsar and Ya-Ali, but potentially any locally produced anti-ship and anti-radar missiles are likely to be installed sooner or later).

Overall the IRIAF Mig-29 fleet has proven over the decades to be reliable and resilient and incidents leading to the destruction of some aircraft (such as in 2012 and 2019) have generally been caused by sudden illnesses or errors of the pilots and not from technical problems. In any case, the inevitable friction did not affect the ability of the two squadrons to operate given the timely replacement of lost aircraft in compliance with the original contract terms.

Let us therefore expect to see the Iranian "Fulcrum" in action in the skies of the Middle East for a long time to come.

Photo: Shahram Sharifi