Iranian Lightning, American Raptor

On Aug. 6, 2007, Iran’s state-run television announced that Iran has begun the large-scale domestic production of an indigenously designed combat aircraft. Dubbed the Azarakhsh (Farsi for “lightning”), the aircraft is reportedly designed for close air support.


Iran’s defense minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, was quoted in state-run media as saying, “By successful test of the Azarakhsh, planning for production of fifth-generation airplanes began.” Fifth-generation aircraft are designed and fabricated to incorporate stealth technologies that include advanced composite materials, radar-reflecting and radar-absorbing surfaces, and integrated advanced electronics and weapons systems.

However, based upon a photo of the Azarakhsh supplied by the government of Iran, the new aircraft appears outwardly to be a rough copy of the U.S.-sponsored, Northrop-designed F-5. The F-5 is a second-generation aircraft procured and first deployed by U.S. forces in the 1960s. Some upgraded F-5s remain in use in the air forces of some nations, and a stripped-down version of the aircraft is still used for jet pilot training by U.S. forces. The U.S. supplied several squadrons of F-5s, plus training manuals and spare parts, to Iran in the early 1970s, before the Iranian Revolution deposed the shah.

Not Fifth Generation

Contrary to any Iranian claim, the Azarakhsh aircraft does not appear to be designed or constructed with anything approaching fifth-generation materials, technology, or integrated combat systems. Much of the aircraft structure and capability may be reverse-engineered from that of the U.S.-supplied F-5s. Iran is not known to possess any of the industrial infrastructures necessary to design or build advanced, fifth-generation platforms and systems. In addition, a fifth-generation aircraft is more than merely a fuselage with attached wings and engines, however much advanced plastic is used in its fabrication.

Fifth-generation aircraft are part of an integrated air combat and battlefield system of systems. Fifth-generation aerial systems are the developmental efforts of several decades of intellectual and capital investment, and there is nothing simple about them in any respect. The Russians are just beginning to design a fifth-generation aircraft and recently selected the Sukhoi design bureau to do so. The Russians have announced their intention to field a flying version of a fifth generation by 2015.

Even the U.S. Air Force, with all of the resources at its disposal, has had a long, challenging, and expensive road, requiring 20-plus years to field its own fifth-generation aircraft called the Lockheed/Boeing F-22 Raptor.


Changing the Face of Aerial Warfare

The F-22 is now deployed with U.S. forces, and in field tests and evaluations, it has already demonstrated a staggering potential to change the operational and even strategic calculus of any aerial battlefield. The stealth, speed (including a feature called supercruise ability), altitude, advanced integrated avionics, and long-range weapon systems capability of the F-22 make that U.S. aircraft the most potent air-superiority fighter in the world. Here, for example, is a figure of the F-22 maneuver envelope at 5 Gs, as compared with that of the currently fielded U.S. F-15 aircraft. The comparisons are simply mind-boggling.


Alter the Combat Equation

Launched from U.S. bases in either Alaska or Hawaii, the long-range electronic and battle-management capabilities alone of the F-22 would alter the aerial combat equation of any conflict in, say, the Western Pacific. And that alteration of the combat equation would begin almost the moment the wheels of the lead aircraft left the runway. On that subject, I do not believe that I am at liberty to say more.

What I can say is that I am acquainted with the meaning of fifth generation. The new Iranian Azarakhsh airplane, whatever else it implies in terms of developments within Iranian industry and industrial capability, is not fifth generation. For fifth generation, you must look to the U.S. and its Air Force, for perhaps the next decade.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

August 14, 2007