Will Russia Swap Its Su-35 Fighters for Iranian Drones?

Will Russia Swap Its Su-35 Fighters for Iranian Drones?

If the deal comes to fruition, Russia would receive new armaments to sustain the war in Ukraine, while Iran would upgrade its aging fleet of fighter jets.

Russia has lost over twenty Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It seems that the Su-35, one of Russia's most feared aircraft in recent decades, is now quite vulnerable on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the role of drones has gained momentum, and their destructive power is as important in decimating enemy troops as fighter jets.

For this reason, it is reported that Russia may be willing to swap part of its fleet of Su-35 fighters in exchange for Iranian Shahed-129 drones.

This would be a significant deal for both countries, and it could have far-reaching consequences. Russia would have new armaments to sustain the war in Ukraine, and Iran would upgrade its fleet, whose most modern aircraft is the F-14 Tomcat, a fighter that the United States retired from service in 2006.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, the growing weapons exchange between Russia and Iran could lead to the swap of fighter jets for drones, as Iran has sent pilots to train with the Sukhoi Su-35. 

Of course, Iran could potentially purchase Su-35 fighters without offering its Shahed-129 drone. But, as Iran is increasingly sending its drones to Russia, this would be a favorable deal for both countries.

In recent years, Iran has made significant progress in developing its drone program. The country now boasts a large fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—and the Shahed is its flagship project. The Shahed-129 is an Iranian-made drone based on the American MQ-1 Predator, and it is proving effective for Russia. It won’t have the same effect that the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone had for Ukrainian troops in the first few months of the war, but it would allow Russia to effectively attack Ukrainian bases without losing dozens of its Su-35s.

This would mean more firepower for Russia. With drones like the Shaheds, Russia could attack the Ukrainian troops with relative impunity, as drones are more difficult to detect by radar than fourth-generation aircraft such as a Sukhoi Su-35. 

These drones have been used for various purposes, including surveillance, target identification, and even attack missions. The only thing that has cast doubt on the possibility of this agreement between the two countries is that the Shahed-129 has been widely criticized for technical failures.

Iranian drones aren't the most reliable drones on the market. But Russian technological ties with Iran have tightened lately, and Russia now relies on technology exchanges with Iran for its combat operations.

From Iran's standpoint, providing technologies to Russia to obtain fighter jets is a bargain. The Su-35 is a top fighter jet designed to compete with elite Western aircraft, such as the American F-22 Raptor and the European Typhoon. The Sukhoi Su-35 is a cost-effective alternative to American fighters, which have not yet been superseded by more sophisticated aircraft. So, for Iran, they would represent a significant upgrade of its air force.

Iran could have a slightly more upgraded fleet for decades if the Sukhoi Su-35s were to be replaced by next-generation aircraft. But Russia has no near-term replacement for this fighter aircraft. 

Prototypes of the Sukhoi Su-57 Felon jet are just now being deployed, and its mass production is still in the pipeline, meaning it is probably years away from seeing combat action as a mass-produced fighter jet.

Likewise, the Su-75 Checkmate is only a distant promise that might be developed at some point in the following decades. In any case, it won't be ready for this war.

This is a major problem for the Russian military, as it desperately needs a new generation of fighter jets to replace its aging fleet. Consequently, Russia's most suitable solution is to have more drones to control the Donbass.

While no official deal has been announced, it’s still not clear if this proposed deal will materialize. The Shahed drones would definitely help Russia, but technical failures have generated concerns. Still, Russia is between a rock and a hard place without more drones.

Mario Samuel Camacho is a military enthusiast who has been closely following the military industry and its armaments for years. He has collaborated with several magazines to inform about military news around the world.

Image: Reuters.