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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Iran fighter purchase overstated?

Former Spook says that while Iran desperately needs the new jets that they plan to purchase from Russia, the cost of parts, the need to train those who maintain and operate the planes and the lack of storage facilities combined with the weak Iranian economy make it unlikely that the scale of the purchase will be what was reported on Monday.
For example, Iran is now the world's only operator of the venerable F-14 Tomcat, and recent steps by the U.S. have further curtailed parts availability, even on the black market. Countries that still fly the F-4 and F-5 are also retiring those airframes, meaning that parts for those jets are increasingly scarce as well. The MiG-29 is much newer, but unlike American manufacturers, Russian aviation firms don't include a comprehensive support package as part of the deal. Parts and maintenance are "extras," and Iran's relatively low mission-capability rates for its MiG-29s suggests that Tehran (predictably) scrimped when it acquired those Fulcrums.

Beyond that, there's the issue of who will actually fix the jets once they join the inventory. Iran's cadre of experienced F-4, F-5 and F-14 mechanics are reaching retirement age, or they were purged by the clerics years ago. While fourth-generation jets (like the SU-30) are easier to maintain, it takes mechanics and crew chiefs a while to become proficient on their new aircraft. Support from the manufacturer (Sukhoi) could certainly ease that transition, but that level of assistance comes at a price--one that Iran has refused to pay in the past.

That's why we're a bit skeptical of the reported arms deal. Buying 250 Flankers, even over a period of time, is an expensive proposition. And despite high oil prices, Iran's economy is under a severe strain right now, making it even less likely that Tehran will commit--let alone, follow through, on an arms deal worth $75-$100 billion, dwarfing the combined value of of the recently-announced U.S.-Saudi arms deal and projected military support to Israel over the next 10 years.

The leak of this Israeli intelligence inquiry is hardly surprising, given Tel Aviv's concerns about the Saudi arms purchase. By highlighting the reported purchase, Israel could pressure the U.S. to provide additional military aid in the years to come. The long-range SU-30 poses a potential threat to Israel, particularly if IL-78 Midas tankers are part of the package.

But that poses another challenge for Iran. Developing even a modest, long-range strike capability against Israel will require months (even years) of training after the Flankers and tankers arrive in country. At the present time, long-distance training flights (with air refueling) remain exceptionally rare in the Iranian Air Force, suggesting that tactical capabilities in that area are low to non-existent.

Additionally, there's the question of when Russia might be able to deliver the jets. At the recent Paris Air Show, a Sukhoi rep told reporters that his company has orders for 242 SU-30MKs, scheduled for delivery to India, Algeria and Algeria through 2014. The MK is the basic "export" version of the two-seat Flanker strike variant. India and China are actually purchasing upgraded models (the MKI and MKK variants, respectively) and Beijing's purchase was not included in the figure cited by Sukhoi. However, it is worth noting that both the Indian and Chinese programs have lagged behind schedule. Biarring a major ramp-up of Flanker production, Iran might have to wait in line for its aircraft.
To date, Ahmadinejad's regime has managed to survive their poor economic situation by severely repressing its people under the guise of Sharia law. While many surveys have shown that he is unpopular, there are no real signs that he is in danger of being unseated, and as long as the Mullahs back him, I doubt he will be unseated. Recall that there were riots and several gasoline stations in Iran were burnt when they introduced gas rationing a month or two ago. We haven't heard much about that lately, have we?

Ahmadinejad seems willing to pay any price to destroy the Jewish state. That includes making his people suffer so that he can pay the cost of supporting Syria and Hezbullah, developing nuclear plants - and purchasing jet fighters - even if things don't always proceed as quickly as he would like. Former Spook may be right that the deal will eventually be smaller than announced, but I would bet on Iran getting at least some of those jets and fuel tankers. He doesn't need 250 to deal with Israel. And no one else in this region will care if God forbid we are hit.

There is no one like a true believer....

Read it all.

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