There can be such a thing as posturing too hard.
Iran’s aviation industry has accomplishments to boast about despite operating under heavy sanctions for nearly forty years. It has managed to keep once state-of-the-art U.S.-built F-4 Phantom and F-14 Tomcat fighters in operational condition for decades, including nine years of high-intensity aerial warfare with Iraq, despite being cut off from spare parts from the United States. It has refurbished the rusting hulks of old F-5 Freedom Fighters into twin-vertical stabilizer Saeqeh fighters, reverse-engineered their J85 turbojet engines, and created a variety of viable capable drones.
All of these scrappy-underdog accomplishments fall far short of developing a working stealth fighter. Russia, which possesses a mature military aviation industry, has basically thrown the towel on its Su-57 stealth fighter program (at least on the short term) because the expenses and technical challenges have proven so prohibitive. Much wealthier countries ranging from France, Germany, India, Japan and the UK are only in the early stages of developing their own.
But Tehran would have the world believe that it quietly developed its own stealth jet way back in February 2, 2013, when one was unveiled as part of the Ten-Day Dawn ceremonies attended by then-President Ahmadinejad.
IAIO Qaher (“Conqueror”) 313 stood out as a diminutive franken-plane that would look cool in an action flick. It retained significant design characteristics of the F-5 Freedom Fighter, but sported canted vertical stabilizers like an F-22 Raptor, flouncy wings reminiscent of a 1950s-era MiG-17, drooping wingtips resembling Boeing’s discarded Bird of Prey concept, and bat-like canards—a second set of wings next to the cockpit.
It didn’t, however, look like something that could actually fly—as pointed out by David Cenicotti of The Aviationist—in an epic takedown. Some of the key points:
The Cockpit Was Too Small to Fit an Average-Height Human Being
Unless that person was a dwarf. The pilot would have to tuck his knees up in front of him to fit. Likewise, the nose was too small to fit a radar.
Simplistic Cockpit Instruments
One of the pictures depicts a relatively low-tech instrument panel likely taken from a civilian light plane. One of the tells? An airspeed indicator maxing out at 260 knots, which is little over half the speed of a subsonic civilian airliner.
No Jet Exhaust Nozzle
Nozzles help a jet not melt itself when engaging afterburners. Furthermore, the jet intakes seem too small as well.
No visible weapons bays or sensor apertures.
Stealth jets generally carry weapons in internal bays to maintain a low-radar cross section. But such internal bays, or even provisions for external weapons or sensors, were visibly absent. Iran claimed the little Qaher could somehow carry two two-thousand-pound bombs and six air-to-air missiles—but the airframe simply did not have enough space to carry them all.
It appeared to be made out of shiny plastic—without tell-tale rivets and screws.
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And the canopy appeared to be smudgy plexiglass and had no latch.
Iranian state media released a video which supposedly depicted a Qaher in flight. But a glance at the footage made clear it was a less-than-full-scale remote-control replica.
After the outcry, Iranian media clarified that these were in fact two different reduced-sized test drones.
Another dramatic photo depicting a Qaher flying against a mountain backdrop appears to have been produced via the magic of Photoshop.
Basically, the Qaher was a highly unconvincing plastic mockup designed for crude propaganda purposes—and international media called it out for being just that.
Qaher 2.0: It Can Move!
The hypothetical stealth jet disappeared for several years only to resurface in a somewhat more convincing form in April 2017 when prototyped number “8” was paraded before President Rouhani and recorded taxiing on a runway. This time, Iranian media conceded that the jet had yet to undergo flight tests.
The new jet now has a cockpit that can fit a full-sized pilot, two turbojet engines with exhaust nozzles so as not to melt itself, and an infrared-sensor turret under the nose which could be handy but would likely mess up its radar cross section. The turbojets are believed to be J85s, an American-built type from the 1950s which Iran successfully reverse-engineered. The Qaher has a wingspan of only 11 meters and is 16 meters long.
However, the unconventional airframe still seems rife with aerodynamic flaws and radar reflective hot spots. Moreover, sharp-eyed analyst Galen Wright noticed that an Iranian mechanic had stenciled on the tire-pressure for the Qaher as 50 psi. For comparison, the tires on a lightweight F-16 ramp up to 300 psi. This suggests even the more realistic Qaher model is too light to be a real, functioning jet fighter.
For that matter, the notion that even the mockup Qaher has a stealthy radar cross section is dubious as Iran likely lacks the prerequisite radar-absorbent material and precision-engineering technology.
Notably, the Fars news agency described the new Qaher as a “logistic aircraft” (whatever that means—it’s clearly not a cargo plane) and a “light fighter jet for military and training purposes.” This hints that if Iran ever does build flying Qaher, it might not be intended for frontline service. Perhaps it could serve as a prototype, or a means to test detection of a quasi-low-observable airframe.
Iranian sources, including a deputy defense minister, have also offered the eyebrow-raising claim that the Qaher is intended to shoot down helicopters, based on a chain of dubious premises. Supposedly, the threat posed by swarms of Iranian motorboats armed with anti-ship missiles is so great that the U.S. Navy will rely on attack helicopters to destroy them. These, however, could in turn be easily shot down by fighters—so long as those fighters are stealthy enough to evade the surface-to-air missiles of ships, so the reasoning goes.
Iran may eventually design an actual flying jet plane resembling the mockups it passed off as the real thing—but even, such a plane would likely merely be a testbed and showpiece. By now, one can consult the experience of the United States, China and Russia to show what a real stealth fighter program would entail. By comparison, Iran’s effort does no seem credible. One should also bear in mind that back in 2003, Iran unveiled an earlier, more convincing fake subsonic stealth fighter called the Shafaq—revealed in 2014 to be a mock-up made of wood.
Certainly, Iran has reasons to want a stealth fighter—it fears an attack by Israel or the United States, some of the most capable air arms on the planet. Furthermore, Iran is competing for regional dominance with multiple Arab states lavishly equipped with fourth and 4.5-generation F-15, F-16, Typhoon and Rafale jet fighters.
However, attempting to develop a working stealth jet from scratch is probably the most expensive and least practical solution to address those challenges. Meanwhile, Tehran’s predilection for fabricating easily disproven evidence of its military capabilities testifies to the revolutionary state’s enduring sense of insecurity.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.