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Monthly Defense News – December 2023

Iran Reportedly Signs Deal to Buy Su-35SE and Mi28NME

On 28 November 2023, Iran’s defence minister, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, announced that Tehran signed a deal with Russia for the purchase of Su-35SE Flanker-E fighter aircraft, Mi-28NME Havoc attack helicopters, and Yak-130 trainers.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) will take possession of the Su-35SEs and Yak-130s, while the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will procure the Mi-28NMEs. Iran did not disclose the numbers nor delivery timelines. Moreover, Russia has yet to comment or confirm the matter.

The contract was reportedly signed following a visit by Russia’s defence minister, Sergey Shoigu, earlier in the fall in September. Shoigu met with the Iranian government to secure weapon systems for its ongoing war in Ukraine. Some reports claim that Tehran may supply Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles.

Previously, a Russian fighter deal to Iran was thought to have been in limbo due to disagreements over the munitions package, technology transfer, and other matters. However, both Tehran and Moscow have dire requirements, with the former soldiering through an obsolete fighter fleet (largely dating back to the Shah) and the latter seeking to sustain its war effort with reliable munition and ammunition supplies. Thus, some type of sale was a matter of time, but will it be a strong enough bridge to weather long term cooperation?

Iran certainly needs help for revitalizing its airpower. The IRIAF, in particular, stands to benefit the most as the bulk of its fleet comprises of legacy US-origin fighters from the 1970s, like the F-14 Tomcat. Unable to reliably source new fighters, Iran focused its resources towards improving its integrated air defence system (IADS) on land, with advanced long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM) – like the Sayyad-4 and Sayyad-4B – being key breakthroughs. In parallel, Tehran built its offensive strike element through a growing array of ballistic missiles, with, potentially, hypersonic missiles joining its arsenal.

To insert a long-range, high-performance fighter with a sizable payload capacity, powerful radar, and long-range air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions into this equation would be significant. Defensively, Iran will have an adept air superiority asset to pair with its dense SAM coverage, providing airspace denial capacity from both the ground and the air. Of course, numbers would be key, which may open the door to prolonged cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, even after Russia concludes its war in Ukraine.

The U.S. sanctions regime may push many of Russia’s traditional arms buyers, like Algeria, away. Thus, the Russians will need a strong customer base that can operate outside of such pressures. Iran would be ideal; it has a need for large numbers of advance fighters and, aside from Russia, no willing suppliers. Moreover, its natural resource wealth and latent industrial capacity could help it finance high-value contracts. Thus, one can see Iran pursue not only the Su-35, but potentially, the MiG-35 and an original program to build out its medium and lightweight fighter cadres, respectively.


France Reportedly Planning to Offer Rafale Fighters to Central Asian States

French media reports claim that Dassault Aviation is marketing its Rafale fighter aircraft to several Central Asian states, potentially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. A sale to either one – especially Kazakhstan, which is traditionally close to Russia – would not only be a significant boon for Dassault, but a breakthrough in the expansion of Western Europe’s security relationships in one of Russia’s key frontiers/border regions.

Uzbekistan has already begun procuring European military equipment, such as four Airbus C-295W light-weight airlifters as well as 11 H125M Fennec and 15 H215M Cougar helicopters. With each of these aircraft types drawing on the French industry, one can see why Paris is interested in expanding its engagement in Central Asia. This is region with vast carbon resources, agricultural output, and industrial competency; so, for Paris, a big-ticket fighter sale could open a significant market with commercial and geo-security gains.

For example, Kazakhstan can both procure a fighter and, in turn, support France in technical/development work in other areas, like rocket technology. Besides technology gains, Paris (and, with time, other Western European capitals) could pull the Kazakh industry away from Russia. Thus, for Moscow, the risk would not only be confined to the potential chill in military-to-military ties, but the longstanding technical-economic integration it has with the Central Asian States. Finally, there is the risk that the French could leverage the sale of defence equipment to insert additional coverages, like military advisors, in the region.

However, the Europeans might face credible competition, not just from Russia, but China as well. Beijing also has an interest in leveraging Central Asia’s resources. Like France, China can also offer state-of-the-art military equipment with financing packages. And, for Russia, closer cooperation between Central Asia and China could be more tolerable than Western Europe entering the space.

JF-17 Block-III Reportedly Equipped with Improved Klimov RD-93MA Engine

The Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) newly inducted JF-17 Block-III – or JF-17C – is reportedly powered by Klimov’s RD-93MA, an improved version of the RD-93 turbofan engine already in use with the fighter.[1] According to a news report, the RD-93MA offers 5,000 lb of additional thrust, eliminates black smoke emission, and increases the JF-17’s station time by 30 minutes. Overall, this marks the first direct confirmation of the JF-17 Block-III using a new engine and, specifically, the RD-93MA.

Klimov started testing the RD-93MA in 2020. Klimov’s parent company, United Engine Corporation (UEC), said that the RD-93MA offers several improvements over the RD-93, including greater thrust, an improved fan design, automatic powerplant control system, and emergency engine start mode.

It is not known when the PAF acquired the RD-93MA and, as importantly, whether the Russia-Ukraine War is affecting the supply of these engines. Basically, if the PAF were to seek additional JF-17Cs, would it need to pivot to a different powerplant from China, or can it count on additional RD-93MAs?

Bayraktar TB3 Achieves Key Range and Endurance Milestone

Turkish drone maker Baykar announced that its Bayraktar TB3 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) successfully completed a 32-hour sortie, covering a distance of 5,700 km at an average altitude of 20,000 feet.

The latest in the line of Bayraktar drones, Baykar specially developed the TB3 for carrier-borne operations from the Turkish Navy’s Anadolu-class of landing helicopter dock (LHD). It is capable of short take-off and landing, enabling it to operate from the Anadolu LHD’s runway. Its wings can also fold, making it suitable for ferrying/stationing in compact facilities, like that of a carrier.

The Bayraktar TB3 first flew on 27 October 2023. It is powered by the indigenously developed PD-170 engine from TUSAŞ Engine Industries (TEI). According to Baykar, the Bayraktar TB3 has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 1,450 kg and a payload capacity of 280 kg across six underwing hardpoints. It can carry compact precision-guided munitions (PGM), like the Roketsan MAM-series, laser-guided rockets, the UMTAS-line of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), and others. In time, the TB3 will also carry stand-off range weapons (SOW), like the Kuzgun-series of cruise missiles and Baykar’s loitering munitions.

In parallel, Baykar is also developing a larger jet-powered unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) called the Bayraktar Kızılelma. Like the Bayraktar TB3, Baykar is developing the Kızılelma for carrier-ops onboard the Anadolu-class LHD, giving the Turkish Navy a genuine fast jet.

[1] Alan Warnes. “JF-17C Makes Public Debut.” Air Forces Monthly. January 2024

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