Iran's Sukhoi Su-25s

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

Among the diverse group of aircraft that form the Islamic Republic of Iran's frontline combat aircraft, the Su-25s are undoubtedly the "most intriguing mystery". For almost twenty years, the agile stormtroopers of Soviet/Russian origin have been flying the skies of Iran and neighboring areas, having already had the opportunity to distinguish themselves on a certain number of occasions, without however having yet received the same media coverage to which they other aircraft models have been subjected. However, as is often the case in such cases, to understand how the heir to the legendary Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik ended up serving in the country of the ayatollahs, it is necessary to go back in history and go back almost forty years ago, to the last phase of the Iran-Iraq War.

Always looking for quick and handy solutions to strengthen its Air Force heavily engaged in the war against the Persian neighbors, Baghdad opted in 1986 to turn to its main arms supplier: the Soviet Union, which decided to accept the requests of the his "protégé".

The Iraqi requirement was to allow the IrAF to obtain an aircraft dedicated to air support (CAS) which the upper echelons of Baghdad identified precisely in the Sukhoi Su-25, a very high-performance fighter-bomber which at that time was covering itself with glory above the skies of Afghanistan.

Between 1986 and 1987 the Iraqis purchased a total of 73 Su-25s, of which 69 belonged to the single-seat Su-25K variant while the 4 were instead of the Su-25UBK version, enough to equip two regiments dedicated to ground attack .

The Su-25K and Su-25UBK variants were versions of the Su-25 expressly developed by the Soviet Union in 1984 for foreign customers. They were offered in two variants: the "A" variant was intended for the allies of the Warsaw Pact and was adopted by Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, while the "B" was aimed at foreign customers who were not part of this alliance and, towards the end of the years '80, was supplied to Angola, North Korea and Iraq.

Once the Su-25s became fully operational, in 1987, they were intensively employed by the IrAF in CAS (Close Air Support) and BAI (Battlefield Aerial Interdiction) missions until the end of hostilities, totaling at least a thousand combat missions (during of greater effort, Iraqi Su-25 crews also flew 15 sorties per day along the front line).

Even in the operational theater of the Iran-Iraq War, the Su-25 demonstrated, as already happened in Afghanistan, excellent boxing skills and a high ability to survive enemy fire, so much so that on at least one occasion a specimen managed to survive and land at the base after being hit by the warhead of an MIM-23 missile hawk of Iranian anti-aircraft defenses.

However, despite the undoubted victories, the two attack regiments also complained of a couple of confirmed losses: a Su-25K was shot down by a MIM-23 missile hawk at the end of 1987 while another was shot down in May 1988 by an F-4E.

Overall, the operational use of the Soviet stormtrooper in the ranks of the IrAF during the conflict was a great success certified not only by the number of combat missions and the low number of losses, but also by the fact that, at the end of the conflict, Saddam Hussein himself decided to decorate with the highest military honor all the pilots who had had the opportunity to fight on the aircraft. Yet, in the ensuing 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi Su-25s were just as overwhelmed as the rest of the IrAF by the fury of the US-led Coalition air offensive. Most of the specimens were destroyed on the ground and the only two that took off to attack the Coalition forces, on February 6, 1991, together with two Mig-21s, were cut down mercilessly by US F-15Cs with missile strikes aim-9 Sidewinder. However, a certain number of Su-25K and Su-25UBK were evacuated to Iran and there they were seized by the country's authorities, together with numerous other military and civilian aircraft, which the Iranians treated as "war reparations" for the damages suffered a few years earlier. In Iraq, more or less a dozen Su-25s remained and continued to serve in the ranks of a considerably weakened and degraded IRAF until the American invasion of 2003 which marked its definitive end.

In Iran, meanwhile, the Iraqi Su-25s they had repaired there at first suffered a different fate than other aircraft models. Unlike what happened for the Mig-29 and Su-24 described in previous analyses, the IRIAF had no plan relating to the introduction into service of this specific model of aircraft therefore all that was done was to leave them parked for years , exposed to the elements, at the edge of the slopes of the Tactical Fighter Base 3 (TFB 3) "Nojed" located in the Hamedan area together with dozens of other aircraft of Iraqi origin.

Things began to change in the early 2001s when, after the invasions of Afghanistan (2003) and Iraq (XNUMX), the Iranians began to feel the breath of the American presence on their necks and, fearing they were the next to suffer a invasion, they decided to proceed with the strengthening of their military instrument. Under this program, i Pasdaran (or more formally: the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”) took the opportunity to re-equip their conventional forces, especially their Aerospace Force (AFAGIR).

Already in 2003 during an exhibition open to the public on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War at the Tactical Fighter Base 1 (TFB 1) of Mehrabad, among others, an example of Su-25 described as "operating in the Armed Forces of the country" was shown to the public. Yes, it later turned out to be only the first of the ex-Iraqi Su-25K/UBKs that were just then being brought back into service by Iran with technical assistance from Georgia. Not only that, the planes in question hadn't entered service with the IRIAF at all, but with the AFAGIR; therefore they represented the first example of fixed-wing, high-performance aircraft to be successfully operational at i Pasdaran (no one had forgotten their failures in trying to have an autonomous jet component in the late 80s and early 90s!).

The following year (2004) i Pasdaran they went further, purchasing 3 brand new Su-25UBKs in Russia and, in 2006, the fighter line was further strengthened by 3 second-hand ex-Russian Su-25Ts. From then on, the Su-25s formed an indispensable component of the rapid reaction doctrine of the Pasdaran.

In any case, despite the fact that two decades have now passed since their introduction into service, several mysteries still surround the operational career of the Iranian "Grachs". While it seems clear that they have never suffered any casualties or combat losses, it is still not entirely clear how many Su-25s are actually in service. In fact, taking for granted the news that the Persians bought the aforementioned 6 Su-25UBK and Su-25T between 2004 and 2006, there is instead no consensus regarding how many ex-Iraqi specimens have been put back into service given that some sources speak of 7, others of 13 and still others even of 16 (which, by transitive property, would mean that the Pasdaran operate a total number of 13, 19, or 22 Su-25s depending on estimates).

We have stated in the past that, as regards the aircraft in service with the IRIAF, even when the numbers were deeply uncertain, the study of theOrbat (order of battle) can be a valid alternative to have more precise estimates on the number of aircraft actually available to the Iranians, but this reasoning cannot be applied uncritically to the case of the Su-25 because they are not in service with the IRIAF , but at AFAGIR and it is by no means certain that i Pasdaran operate according to a Western-based organization as the IRIAF has always done!

It is a fact that the Su-25s are concentrated in a single squadron but this does not help us, because if it were actually organized according to American guidelines, we would have a number of potential aircraft ranging between 18 and 24, but if the organization were instead of Russian mold, the number would be lower and fluctuate between 12 and 18. In the light of the lack of information in this sense, this particular aspect of the Iranian career of the "Grach" will remain a mystery for the moment.

Much less mysterious are the technical characteristics of the aircraft themselves. The first Su-25s that Iran acquired, as already mentioned, were second-hand ex-Iraqi specimens belonging to the single-seat Su-25K versions belonging to the "B" variant and the two-seat Su-25UBK.

The Su-25K is the commercial export variant, developed in 1984, of the basic Su-25 which once entered service with the Soviet V-VS. The "A" variant of the Su-25K, at that time adopted by Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, differed from the "basic" Su-25 only in the installation of the SRO-2 IFF system instead of the SRO-1P, the different encrypted equipment and the absence of release systems for nuclear devices. On the other hand, the "B" variant of the Su-25K, at that time adopted by Angola, North Korea and Iraq (and therefore inherited by transfer from Iran), presented, in addition to the differences mentioned in the "A" variant, also various limitations regarding the equipment of the armament, not having the ability to employ guided air-to-ground missiles. However, they were equipped with the ASP-17 sight associated with the cannon and bomb delivery system and with the laser rangefinder and target designator Klen-PS.

The two-seat Su-25UBKs, both those inherited from Iraq and the 3 new ones purchased in 2004, had a dual training and combat role and could deliver the same type of ammunition as the single-seat variant. The only difference was due to the presence of two seats, instead of one, placed in tandem, with a consequent redesign of the fuselage and a decrease in the capacity to take on fuel (about 250 kg less).

Completely different performances instead characterized the 3 Su-25T purchased in 2006. Unknown to most, the Su-25T was born as a development of the "basic" Su-25 in response to an operational requirement concerning the development of a protected and technologically advanced platform, equipped with state-of-the-art target designation systems and capable of accurately firing relatively simple and inexpensive guided missiles. It is not clear why i Pasdaran decided to buy this variant, although they probably did so after observing the remarkable performance it recorded during the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian War in Ethiopian hands. In any case, the Su-25s of all the versions mentioned have become an essential element of the AFAGIR fixed-wing combat component and have been concentrated in a single squadron, the 1o FS (Fighter Squadron) based at Tactical Fighter Base 7 (TFB 7) “Dowran” located near Shiraz. Although it is formally a base belonging to the IRIAF, it also has a good part of the air assets of the Pasdaran, thus resulting in a joint basis in all respects.

Following the outbreak of the so-called "Arab Spring", the Su-25s underwent an update program that brought them to the Su-25TK/Su-25UBTK stage, enhancing their ground attack capabilities in hostile environments and enhancing them in the anti-tank vocation in particular and, subsequently, in 2014 they also had their baptism of fire which, curiously, took place in Iraq, where the career of the Su-25 in the Middle East had begun several decades earlier.

With the deterioration of the situation in Iraq due to the explosion of the ISIS guerrillas following the events that began in 2011 in neighboring Syria, Iran began to increase its support for its "protégé" Iraqi government as early as 2013. When ISIS launched its large-scale offensive in June 2014 that led to the fall of Mosul and much of western and central Iraq, as far away as the capital Baghdad, the Pasdaran they immediately took the bull by the horns by being directly involved in the war against ISIS on Iraqi soil. As part of the Iranian intervention in the aforementioned conflict, the "Guardians of the Revolution" sent their entire Su-25 squadron to Iraq and remained there for the next three and a half years until the territorial entity in the hands of the so-called “Islamic State” was completely eradicated in late 2017.

Together with 21 examples of Iraqi Su-25s purchased for the occasion in Russia and Belarus, the Iranian Su-25s (flown by mixed Iranian-Iraqi crews, but with a clear prominence of the Iranian component) played an irreplaceable role in operations in support both to the Iraqi Armed Forces and to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU). On that occasion there was also a participation in the military actions of the IRIAF aircraft, but the commitment of the fixed-wing aircraft of the Iranian Air Force, as far as it is known, was limited to the year 2014 only.

To cover up their direct involvement in the Iraq War, the Iranians claimed that they were only supporting Iraq by returning aircraft seized from the Iraqis in 1991, but such claims were just fig leaves that did not convince any foreign observers even then. However, those who believe that the war to stop and eradicate the so-called "Islamic State" are mistaken was the only occasion in which the Iranian Su-25s used their weapons in fire actions against hostile targets. In fact, like most of the fixed-wing combat aircraft of the country of the ayatollahs, even the Su-25s of the Pasdaran have been used in the "war on drones" that have been crowding the Iranian skies for at least twenty years and at least one of these incidents even assumed international dimensions when, on November 1, 2012, two Su-25s fired cannon shots at an American UAV from reconnaissance MQ-1 Predator guilty according to the Tehran authorities of violating Persian airspace over the waters of the Persian Gulf.

Despite the fact that twenty years have passed since their introduction into service, the Su-25s continue to serve in the 1o Fighter Squadron of the AFAGIR and, although in the meantime they have also been joined by the Sukhoi Su-22, they continue to maintain their role intact in the rapid intervention strategies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and of the military system of the Persian state in general while seeing its war capabilities progressively increased through the installation of new armaments of domestic origin, among which the laser-guided missile with dual air-to-ground and ground-to-ground capability deserves to be mentioned Building.

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