Iran has finalized a deal to acquire Su-35 fighter aircraft, the batch initially rejected by Egypt, from Russia, according to Iranian officials on 28 November 2023. Current data, up to 28OCT2023, shows 25 Su-35SE air superiority jets (AFIC/NATO reporting name: Flanker-E) still stationed at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant (KAAP) in Russia, with deliveries anticipated in 2024.
SU-35S STILL IN RUSSIA
Recent open-source GEOINT analysis, based on imagery taken on 28 OCT 2023, indicates that the vast majority of Su-35s are still based at KAAP.
Cloud cover and snow post-28 Oct 2023 hinder precise interpretation without SAR or very high-res (VHR) imagery*. However, higher resolution imagery hints at most jets still being at KAAP in late November 2023.
The Iranian purchase may not be limited to the batch of 24-26 Su-35s refused by Egypt. It could encompass new production units, although that is unclear.
Monitoring KAAP and key Iranian air bases—Tehran, Isfahan, Bandar Abbas, and Shiraz—is imperative to continue tracking the development of the Iranian-Russian Su-35 deal.
Deliveries are likely to commence in 2024.
The Su-35 jets served as a strategic bargaining chip for Russia, aimed at securing military industry assistance from Iran.
In 2022, the promise of the Su-35 sale has likely helped Russia secure bulk Shahed-131/136 transfers from Iranian stocks, along with a transfer of production agreement. This enabled Russia to set up a local assembly and production of the Shahed-136 at Alabuga Special Economic Zone (SEZ) factory in Yelabuga, Tatarstan, Russia, where 100 units are rolled out per month.
The Su-35 procurement, which includes Mi-28 helicopters and Yak-130 trainers, prompts questions about the deal’s implications.
It is unclear if the deal is just paying off past debt for Iran’s military-industrial assistance, or if it is a precursor to a new exchange, which may include Iranian ballistic missile transfers.
U.S. intelligence believed in late 2022 that Russia and Iran had struck an agreement for ballistic missile transfers, although this has not materialized yet.
Russia is only producing around five Iskander-M short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) per month and could be inclined to source additional BMs from elsewhere.
MISSILE & UAV RESTRICTION EXPIRED
The expiration of UN Resolution 2231 restrictions on Iran’s missile and UAV trade on 18OCT2023 opened the door for Russia and Iran to move towards BM transfers while still maintaining the appearance that they are abiding by international law.
RISKS TO REGIONAL SECURITY
The primary risk involves Iran transferring a significant quantity of short and medium-range ballistic missiles to Russia for immediate deployment against Ukraine. The missile transfer could also be accompanied by a local production agreement akin to the Shahed arrangement.
Ballistic missiles, in this context, serve as a potent tool for Russia to target Ukrainian air bases, particularly those expected to host European-donated F-16 fighter jets in 2024.
They can also be used to deliver wide-area destruction to critical infrastructure, troop concentrations, and urban centers that cruise missiles cannot accomplish.
A limited batch of 25-26 export-downgraded Su-35s will not alter the balance of power in the region. Iran’s rivals across the Gulf and Levant field much more capable fighter jets, including F-15QAs, F-15SAs, Rafales, and F-35s, and in bigger numbers (40 to over 100).
However, the Su-35 is a stepping stone for modernizing the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF). Even one or two squadrons of Su-35s could provide a generational leap for the IRIAF’s legacy inventory.
Familiarization with the Su-35 production and maintenance could also allow the Iranian aerospace industry to advance domestic fighter jet programs, an area where local efforts have stagnated.
By Vlad Sutea
This text was originally published as a Linkedin post on 28NOV2023.
*VHR and SAR-based interpretation available on demand