Iran will become the second country after Pakistan to receive Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group’s J-10 fighter jets. While Pakistan is paying a hefty amount for its shopping, Iran will get the J-10 jets without paying a dollar to China. At the heart of China-Iran deal is a barter contract that will allow Beijing to exploit Iran’s largest oilfield over the next 20 years, a Taiwanese newspaper has reported.
“China will provide the Iranian Air Force with a total number of 24 F-10 Vigorous Dragon jets, the export version of the J-10, to equip its two fighter groups,” said Want Daily in a report. The cost of a single J-10 is estimated at US$40 million, making the value of the deal around US$1 billion. “This could be bartered through permitting Beijing 20 years of exploitation rights to the Azadegan oilfield,” added the report in the daily which is a sister publication of Want China Times. Barter trade is not new to Iran-China relations, which was adopted as early as 2011 to dodge international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
There has been some confusion about the exact number of aircraft being part of the deal. Israel’s military intelligence website DEBKAfile reported last week that China had agreed to sell 150 J-10s. There has been no official announcement from either Beijing or Tehran about the deal.
According to Chinese magazine Military Today, the J-10 is the first Chinese-developed combat aircraft that “approaches Western fighters in terms of performance and capabilities”. It is known as “Meng Long” or “Vigorous Dragon” in China and as “Firebird” in the West. When launched in 1988 in guarded secrecy, the J-10 was initially intended to counter threat posed by the Soviet forth-generation fighters — the MiG-29 and Su-27. It is believed to be largely influenced by the Israeli IAI Lavi (young lion) multirole fighter which was also developed by the Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI) in the 1980s. Israeli media has reported that Tel Aviv had sold China the J-10’s technology.
The Chinese aircraft’s induction into the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force will enhance its operational capabilities. With a range of 2,940 kilometers, the J-10s will enable Iran to defend its entire airspace and that of the Persian Gulf.
According to Want Daily, several Chinese military analysts believe the US may not be happy about such a deal and China will face international pressure should Iran use the fighters in combat against US allies in the region. Others meanwhile pointed out that 24 fighters will not make a major difference to the strategic situation in the Middle East.
Pakistan is the first overseas customer of the J-10 fighters. Back in 2009,Want Daily says, China agreed to sell 36 export version of the J-10B fighters known as FC-20 to Pakistan in a contract worth US $1.4 billion. The aircraft is designed to be equipped with new weapons system such as the SD-10A Beyond Visual Range Air to Air Missile. None of the aircraft have yet been delivered to the Pakistan Air Force, however. China is Pakistan’s largest military supplier.
Iran is also believed to be considering to purchase Mirage aircraft from France. The possible deal reportedly came up for discussion during the recent visit of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to Tehran, the first such visit by a top level French diplomat in 12 years.
After the trip, according to Washington DC-based website Al Monitor, Iranian government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht said that “France could satisfy our need for Mirage warplanes … buying new Mirage planes is the first priority of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force [IRIAF].”
In an article in the Al Monitor, Abbas Qaidaari says Iran gained access to a small number of Iraqi Dassault Mirage F-1 warplanes during the first Gulf War. “The aircraft were moved to Iran from fear of destruction in dogfights with more modern Western planes. Rather than returning them, Iran seized the aircraft as part of compensation for its 1980-88 war with Iraq.”
Iran now possesses 24 Mirage F-1BQ and F-1EQ planes. Qaidaari says it is not clear exactly how many of these fighters are operational. From the very beginning, he writes, Iran has had many problems in operating them.
As the plane radars are designed for French and American air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, Iran had for years serious problems with supplies, installation of radar, available missile synchronization and pilot training. However, it has been able to operate the F1 aircraft using domestically made missiles and making some alterations to the radar as well as the low-altitude navigation and infrared targeting systems.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an IRIAF major told Al-Monitor: “Iranian pilots are usually not interested in flying Mirage planes. These aircraft aren’t suitable for our air force. IRIAF squadrons consist of Russian and American equipment. I don’t think that our Ministry of Defense wishes to purchase French aircraft for our air force. We have a lot of weaknesses in the air force fleet; our fourth-generation fighters, such as MiG-29, have not been upgraded to the SMT mode, our F-14s are still ‘A’ models and our close air support planes, such as F-5 Tigers, are so old. The reality is that our enemies around the region have the most modern American and Russian warplanes. It’s clear that our air force needs new planes, but whatever our potential procurement, I’m sure of that it will not be French Mirage fighters!”
Apart from the issue of international restrictions on arms sales to Iran, the Islamic Republic is not likely to purchase Mirages for several reasons.
Qaidaari writes that during the past two decades, Russia has helped Iran construct aircraft maintenance and production facilities. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force (IRGC AF), which operates parallel to IRIAF, uses only Russian aircraft such as the SU-25 Frog Foot and MIL helicopters. Moreover, he says, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles developed by Iran in recent years have been based on Russian and Chinese technology. It is therefore clear that both the IRGC AF and IRIAF are equipped to better adapt to new Russian warplanes as opposed to Western aircraft.
Furthermore, China — like Russia — has enjoyed good military relations with Iran over the past three decades. During the Iranian navy commander’s visit to China in October 2014, the two sides agreed on military cooperation, and the Chinese defense minister said that China sees Iran “as a strategic partner and we are looking to increase our military relations in terms of training and arms supplies.” Yet, China is an unlikely source for new warplanes for Iran. Chinese fighters such as the J-10 and J-17, which Pakistan has purchased, are old multirole aircraft. The newer fifth-generation J-20 fighter is not an option for Iran either; it’s still in the final testing phase and China won’t sell its latest military technology to another country.
Expressions of interest in French jets aside, such dealings are unlikely for military, engineering, financial and political reasons. Instead, for the very same reasons, Russia could be a possible source for new warplanes. Iran currently has interceptor fighter squadrons (F-14 & SU-24), middleweight bombers (F-4 & SU-25) and close air defense fighters (F-5, HESA Azarakhsh, F-7A and HESA Saeqeh). IRIAF will therefore not need to purchase this type of aircraft in the short term. Instead, advanced multirole fighters is the main necessity for the regular Iranian air force. It is indeed possible that, over the next few years as international restrictions fade, Iran will buy multirole fighters such as the SU-30, MiG-35, MiG-31 or upgrade its MiG-29 fighters to the SMT version. All in all, Iran’s air force is set for a badly needed revamping in the medium term.
Iran is also reportedly weighing the purchase of 250 highly-advanced Sukhoi-Su-30MK1 multirole fighters from Russia. Tehran’s efforts to rearm and modernize its aging air force is bound to cause ripples in the Middle East, stretching from Saudi Arabia to Israel.
Iran’s key rivals in the region — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have been on an arms shopping spree in recent months, mostly from the United States. The State Department approved the sale of 600 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) Missiles to Saudi Arabia on July 29. The deal is estimated at $5.4 billion. The same day, State Department notified Congress of its approval of sale of additional military hardware worth $500 million to Riyadh.
And on August 3, Secretary of State John Kerry said after a meeting with the foreign ministers of Gulf Cooperation Council in the Qatari capital Doha that Washington would speed up arms sales to Gulf states to enable them address their concerns about Iran deal.
The deal could create a bonanza for the US defense contractors, Bloomberg Business reported before the world powers reached the nuclear agreement. And rightly so. The petrodollar loaded Gulf countries are determined to win an arms race with Iran. And Tehran too seems tenacious to go on a major arms shopping spree after it gains access to an estimated $100 billion in oil revenue now frozen by sanctions. This certain arms race may be a good news for the Western, Chinese and Russian defense industries but a bad omen for a volatile region that is already sitting on a powder keg.