In the previous episode of our series on Iran's combat aircraft, we talked about how, with the entry into service of both ex-Iraqi and new production Sukhoi Su-25s in the early XNUMXs, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force (AFAGIR) had finally managed, over 15 years after its foundation (1985) to acquire high-performance jet combat aircraft.
Continuing on the traced path, we will talk today about how AFAGIR has in recent years further strengthened its fixed-wing combat line through the introduction of another Soviet aircraft of Iraqi origin: the Sukhoi Su-22.
Even in this case, however, as has already been done in the past, we must start from history...
Most often described as export variants of the Soviet Sukhoi Su-17, the Sukhoi Su-20 and Sukhoi Su-22 they were actually an evolution of it (given that several sub-variants that appeared over time had superior performance to the first variants of the Su-17 developed for the domestic market!) so much so that, in the light of the performance demonstrated in various operational theaters of the armed conflicts of the Cold War, even the same V-VS decided to adopt them.
In turn, the Su-17/Su-20/Su-22 series represented an evolution and enhancement of the disappointing Sukhoi Su-7.
Having first flown in 1955 and being introduced into service in 1959, the Su-7 (photo below) very quickly established itself as the Soviet Union's premier fighter-bomber/ground attack aircraft in the 60s; however, despite its interesting characteristics, it soon became clear to the Soviet military leaders that the performance expressed by the aircraft was in any case lower than the original requirement.
Despite this, the Su-7 had a long operational career at V-VS which ended only with the breakup of the USSR, and was also adopted by all Warsaw Pact countries (except Bulgaria and Albania) and by a certain number of Third World country air forces traditionally customers of Moscow such as Afghanistan, India, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and North Korea (the latter still uses it today!).
While the Su-7 was slowly absorbed into the front line departments and at the same time proliferated abroad, in rapid succession what would become its successors were born in the aeronautical design offices: the Mig-23BN, the Mig-27 and the aircraft of the Su-17/20/22 series.
Although at a superficial glance the Su-17/20/22 may appear very similar to the original Su-7, in reality it is possible to immediately notice the fundamental difference that while the Su-7 are equipped with a swept wing, the Su-17/ 20/22 represented the first example of an aircraft with a variable geometry wing to enter service with the Soviet Armed Forces.
Just like the Su-7, its "cousin" was also offered in large numbers on the export market in the Su-20 and Su-22 variants over the following decades, so much so that it is still in service today in various countries in around the world. Iraq, an important purchaser of Soviet arsenals since the 60s, subsequently adopted both the Su-7 in the Su-7BMK version (apparently in 54 units overall) and the Su-20 and Su-22, then employing all these aircraft very intensely during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War.
On the eve of the outbreak of the conflict, in September 1980, the IrAF (Iraqi Air Force) lined up the following units equipped with the Soviet ground attack fighter-bomber:
- 1o Squadron, equipped with Su-20;
- 44o Squadron, equipped with Su-22.
In any case, the escalation of the conflict was such that the Iraqis immediately had to work hard to buy as many aircraft as possible both to compensate for the losses and to create new squadrons.
It is unclear how many Su-20s and Su-22s Iraq lost during the 1980-88 war (unfortunately much of Iraqi documentation has been lost over the years) but the trio of F-5s are reportedly , F-4 and F-14 of the IRIAF has shot down at least fifty of them. To these must then be added the specimens destroyed on the ground during Iranian sorties against Iraqi bases, those lost due to accidents or friendly fire and those destroyed by Iranian anti-aircraft defenses (for example, it will suffice to remember that only during the battle for the conquest of Al Faw peninsula, Operation "Alba-8", between February 10 and March 10, 1986, the MIM-23 missiles hawk of Iranian anti-aircraft defenses shot down 20 Su-22s, 9 of them in a single day, February 12).
Despite heavy losses, Iraqi "Fitters" of all stripes proved an irreplaceable pillar of Saddam Hussein's war effort and their squadrons ended the conflict with high morale.
During the ensuing 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi Air Force failed to block the way for the overwhelming forces of the US-led Coalition (photo). On 7 February 1991 two Su-20/22 were shot down together with a Su-7BMK by American F-15Cs using AIM-7 missiles Sparrow as they attempted to attack enemy forces. Subsequently, the IrAF leaders organized a mass evacuation of their aircraft to Iran to save them from destruction. Among the aircraft that found refuge in Iran were all the "Fitters" belonging to 44o, 69o and to 109o Squadron previously concentrated in the Al-Bakr base to serve as an operational reserve, plus a handful of aircraft belonging to other units.
As for the versions, among the "Fitters" who repaired in the country of the ayatollahs there were Su-20, Su-22M2K, Su-22M3K, Su-22M4K, Su-22UM and even at least 6 specimens of Su-22UM4K (designation assigned Su-22UM3K equipped with avionics usually installed on Su-22M4K and intended for SEAD/DEAD or deep attack missions inside enemy territory).
It is not clear how many "Fitters" fled to Iran. It is true that most of the sources speak of a number between 40 and 50 specimens, but this is based on the analysis of the recovery plans of the aircraft carried out in the last few years (and which we will deal with later) which provide for the creation of two Su-22 squadrons. Indeed, to this day we are not even sure what was the total number of Iraqi aircraft (fixed-wing and rotary-wing, military and civilian, combat and support) that repaired to Iran during Desert Storm and were subsequently seized by the country's authorities.
Most of the fleeing Iraqi aircraft found refuge in the Tactical Fighter Base 2 (TFB 2) “Fakouri” of Tabriz, in the Tactical Fighter Base 3 (TFB 3) “Nojed” by Hamedan and in Tactical Fighter Base 4 (TFB 4) Dezful's "Vahdati", but others also landed at bases under the responsibility of the Army Aviation (IRIAA), on various highway sections, especially on the Shah-Abad highway, and some even made emergency landings in the Iranian desert.
To date, the only certain data in our possession are those compiled by the commanding officers of the Tactical Fighter Base 3 (TFB 3) "Nojed" of Hamedan which recorded the landing of 90 fighters and fighter-bombers and 20 between transport and commercial aircraft. Again according to the data provided by them, we know with certainty that among the Iraqi fighter-bombers landed at their base there were as many as 20 "Fitters" (4 Su-20 and 16 Su-22 of the most disparate versions).
If the total number of Sukhoi variable geometry wing fighter-bombers to have repaired in Iran therefore still remains opaque, we cannot say the same with regard to the tactics they used to evade the American fighter and reach their "Persian sanctuary". .
The Iraqis organized various formations generally led by one or more two-seater Su-22Ms to act as "outriders and navigators" for the other aircraft in the "group" while the approach routes were the same as those already used during the Iran-Iraq War for attack targets located deep in enemy territory.
As soon as the "Desert Storm" clouds had cleared from the Middle East and it became clear that Iraqi air assets would never return to their homeland, the question arose of what to do with the now Iranian "Fitter" fleet. In truth, for a certain period of time the Persian military simply limited itself to keeping the fighter-bombers in a state of conservative inactivity, as there was no plan for their absorption into the IRIAF as happened instead for other types of ex-Iraqi fighter jets.
After the first half of the 90s, and having in the meantime acquired familiarity with the much larger and more performing Sukhoi Su-24MK, the IRIAF technicians decided to put their hands on the Su-22 as well but at that juncture their attempts proved fruitless for lack of technical manuals relating to the vehicles.
To remedy the situation, the Iranians decided to turn to Ukraine, which at the time provided support in maintaining the fleet of ex-Soviet aircraft in service; however the request by the Ukrainian side of the payment of 10 million dollars for each single Su-22 restored to flying condition was considered excessive therefore the Persians opted for the disbursement of 1 million dollars in order to obtain the technical manuals for maintenance and instructed their technicians to prepare 3 Su-22UM4K and 7 Su-22M4K for test flights. Over a period of about six months, the 10 Su-22s under examination were put into flight condition and progressively transferred to the Tactical Fighter Base 7 (TFB 7) “Dowran” near Shiraz (photo).
In any case, a series of insurmountable technical problems and a general degradation of capabilities that affected the Iranian military during the 90s imposed a temporary halt to the project. In 2007, following the success achieved by the IRIAF technicians in maintaining the F-4E and Su-24MK fleets, it was decided to try again with the Su-22 and a single specimen, identified with the serial number 3- 6957 was selected to be returned to service. However, subsequent inspections after the completion of the work verified the presence of several cracks, in particular in the Lyulka AL-21F-3 engine for which this second attempt was also aborted.
In 2012, the final decision that would allow the return of the Su-22s to operational service once and for all was made by none other than Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is openly committed to supporting the expansion of conventional military capabilities of the Pasdaran.
It seems that a fundamental role in the work of "captatio benevolentiae" towards the Supreme Guide it was carried out on that occasion by the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force (AFAGIR), the "sardar" (general) Amir Ali Hajizadeh (photo).
A man of a thousand lives and a tireless weaver of dark plots, Hajizadeh has commanded AFAGIR since 2009 and is currently one of the operational commanders of the Pasdaran with the longest career who, unlike many of his "colleagues", has seen the terms of his service mandate renewed more than once. Eager to equip AFAGIR with a conventional force of high-performance combat aircraft, it was he who pushed for the introduction into service of the Sukhoi Su-25, and it was he who convinced Ayatollah Khamenei to order the IRIAF to deliver the unused Su-22 at AFAGIR, so that they could be subjected to maintenance in the establishments of Pars Aviation, a large aeronautical conglomerate controlled by the Pasdaran and main center for the maintenance of aircraft of Soviet/Russian origin in Iran and in the entire Middle East.
On October 1, 2013, as the Middle East burned in the flames of the so-called “Arab Spring,” Hajizadeh called a press conference during which he was able to triumphantly announce that the Pasdarans would soon put the Su-22 into service with the aim of equipping two squadrons for a total of over 40 aircraft. What the wily commander pasdar forgot (obviously, deliberately!) to reveal was that this time the Iranian industries could count, for the implementation of their project, on the full collaboration of Syria, which had experience in the use of the Su-22 since the Yom Kippur War against Israel 1973. I Pasdaran they were able to make use of this cooperation because under pressure from the American threat at the time of the presidency of George W. Bush, Syria and Iran formalized the existence of a strategic relationship through the signing in 2006 of a real treaty of alliance military, which proved to be very useful to the Syrian regime after the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the Syrian Civil War, which soon extended to Iraq and degenerated into the Great War of the Middle East.
Precisely in these junctures, the Iranian Su-22s became the protagonists of an international mystery in spite of themselves when, starting from May 2015, the news was spread that Iran had supplied the Syrians with 10 Su-22s (photo) as an emergency regime for flesh out the ranks of their increasingly pressured Air Force (SyAAF) at that stage of the war.
In reality, this, like other news relating to the use of IRIAF and AFAGIR aircraft and helicopters in Syria, turned out to be a colossal falsehood. In fact, unlike what happened in Iraq starting from 2014, the only Iranian aircraft to be active in the context of the Syrian Civil War were the transport aircraft (C-130, Il-76, Boeing 737 and 747) both of the IRIAF and of AFAGIR heavily engaged in the transfer of supplies of all kinds destined for Syria, Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian militias engaged on the ground, as well as obviously the most diverse types of drones, however no Iranian military combat aircraft has ever been employed above the Syrian skies.
The transfer of the Su-22 actually took place, starting as early as April 2013 and continuing in the following years, but the purpose of this operation was to allow the aforementioned aircraft to undergo a complete maintenance cycle at the Syrian aeronautical plants located in the city of Aleppo.
It was thanks to these joint efforts that, in 2018, the first of two Su-22 squadrons operating under the colors of the Pasdaran was finally declared finally operational.
Nowadays a squadron of Su-22 (2o Fighter Squadron) is fully operational while a second (3o Fighter Squadron) is in an advanced stage of completion. Both are based on the Tactical Fighter Base 7 (TFB 7) "Dowran" of Shiraz co-managed by AFAGIR and IRIAF, as well as most of the air assets of the Pasdaran.
From a technical point of view, the updating process to which the airframes have been subjected has not only restored their operability, but has also led to the integration of new avionics and weapon systems.
The interventions to which the Iranian Su-22s have been subjected can be summarized as follows:
- updating of the navigation system and of the IFF system;
- installation of new external tanks similar to the original PTB-800;
- use of R-60MK air-to-air missiles for self-defense;
- possibility of using Kh-29 and Kh-25 laser-guided and TV-guided air-to-ground missiles also used by the Su-24MK;
- the ability to transport and drop a large load of free-fall bombs and unguided rockets of Russian, American and domestic production;
- installation of a new pod for target tracking;
- the approval for the launch of a vast range of munitions of Iranian origin including fragmentation bombs, laser-guided missiles (such as the Bina), gliding bombs (such as the Balaban and the Yasin) and a new cruise missile of unspecified designation ( many sources point to the Nasr-1) characterized by a range of 1500 kilometres.
However, the two most interesting updates to which the Persian Su-22s have been subjected concern the installation of a datalink which allows the aircraft to exchange information both with other AFAGIR and IRIAF aircraft and with the UAVs that Iran has been producing and deploying in large numbers for years, and the installation of a new weapon system based on the d 'artillery Fajr-xnumx from 333 mm and with a range between 75 and 200 kilometers (as usual, the sources differ considerably) which should act as an Iranian response to the Israeli "Rampage" air-launched system.
Although to date Tehran's Su-22s have not yet had their baptism of fire, the intense operational use has led to an inevitable attrition of the airframes with the loss of two specimens (respectively on 11 November 2017 and 17 September 2022) plus the serious damage to a further specimen (on August 3, 2022) which, however, once the repairs have been completed, will be able to fly again.
It therefore remains to be seen what the future will hold for the "Fitters" in Persian land and if and how they will again be able to use their weapons in warfare in the future, this time at the service of what was their ancient enemy.
Photo: Mehr News Agency / web / US DoD / Twitter / IRNA / YouTube