Enrichment process

Stealth fighter monkeys from outer space

If you’re looking for rapid aerospace engineering and technology progress forget about those laggards at Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, NASA, and EADS. You’ll be wasting buckets of billions and waiting years or decades for any results. You should instead convert your greenbacks to rials and turn to the lean and hungry nerds of Iran.

For in the last few months Tehran has announced more high-tech product launches than an Apple fanboy’s wildest dreams. And thanks to the jubilant fidelity of Iranian state media, we too can revel in the advancements of a nation that will inevitably soon be fielding something along the lines of an Imperial Star Destroyer.

The Karrar jet drone.

It started a while back with the unveiling of the Karrar bomber drone in 2010. Details are sketchy, but the unmanned aircraft was touted as being able to deliver a single smart bomb on a thousand-click round trip. Taking a leaf from the Steve Jobs book of hyperbole, President Ahmadinejad told his enraptured audience that “This jet is a messenger of honour and human generosity and a saviour of mankind, before being a messenger of death for enemies of mankind.”

Then in 2012 we had the launch of the Shahed (“Witness”) drone, with claimed endurance of 24 hours and a range of 2,000 kilometres. The Iranians had been saying for months that they would be launching a new stealth drone based on back-engineered tech from the American Sentinel they had downed whilst it was joy flighting along their border with Afghanistan. The Witness certainly looked less impressive and less stealthy than the Sentinel though.

Then at the end of January, we had the strange case of the orbiting monkey. Iran claims to have shot the plucky primate into space and returned it “intact”. But conspiracy theorists are not so sure, citing physical differences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ monkey pics. Just a mix-up with the archive photos says the Iranian space agency.

Even more enticing than extra-terrestrial monkeys though was this week’s news of a new Iranian stealth fighter. With a profile that calls to mind features of the F-117 and F-22, the single-engined Qaher (“Dominant”) F313 was shown on state TV doing some low altitude passes. Or perhaps not.

Video caption here.

Western analysts think that the flying version in the footage is a sub-scale remote-controlled model, different from the life-size mock-up shown as a backdrop to the President’s speech. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad described the new fighter as having “almost all the positive features” of sophisticated Western aircraft. (The cynical amongst you will note the “almost all” as a fairly large chunk of wriggle room when it comes to advanced fighter jets.) Real or not, the Qaher program was the next step on from the 2007 launch of a legitimate indigenous fighter aircraft, the Saeqeh (“Thunderbolt”).

The Iranian Saeqeh “Thunderbolt” Wikimedia

Whilst we would be wise to take all the Iranian claims with a grain of salt, such announcements demonstrate that Iran is a very different regional player than any of its neighbours. Developing a self-contained aerospace industry is ruinously expensive and exceedingly difficult, even if you are just pirating existing designs. It certainly takes commitment and a mentality of self-reliance uncommon in a part of the world where nestling up to Cold War sponsors was (and still is) the way to keep your arsenals full.

The Islamic Republic inherited significant aerospace manufacturing assets built by Western companies during the Shah’s regime and was then assisted by the Soviet Union in its dying decade. A lot of this gear was blown away in the Iran-Iraq conflict, but Iran still operates some old Tomcats and Hercs. But whereas other states would have been content to run these into the ground and then turn up periodically in Washington and Moscow with a shopping list, the Iranians have placed great stock in maintaining and growing their local capabilities.

However, this home-grown industry will never fill the gap and Iran has reportedly been in discussions with Russia and China to bolster its stocks with all sorts of military aircraft. Naturally, in a stand-up fight it is hard to see the Iranian air force prevailing over what America can field, assuming any of the Iranian planes were even able to get off the ground before they were stealth-bombed into junk.

But this determination to prove that Iran is a sophisticated nation and resolve to stand up with the big boys shows why the Islamic Republic is such a conundrum for regional stability. Factor in that nuclear penchant and you have a nation that’s too big to be rolled over and too independent to feel threatened. The only way to engage then is diplomatically and the voices and actions from both sides in the last 10 years have been too shrill and spiteful for productivity there.

Perhaps we could make peace by offering them a good deal on some F-22s?