Information Warfare: A Lie Too Far In Iran

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August 23, 2018: Since 2017 there have been more and more nationwide anti-government demonstrations in Iran, with Iranians calling for their leaders (Islamic clerics running a religious dictatorship) to quit and allow for a real democracy. The protestors call for an end to the corruption (the families of senior clerics live visibly luxurious lives) and the lies. This nationwide unrest has been brewing for some time. The clerics thought they had it fixed with the 2015 treaty that lifted the sanctions. They failed to note that when life did not improve, as long promised after the sanctions were lifted in 2015 more and more Iranians realized that their continued poverty made it clear that the government lies included far more than economic ones and promises to reduce corruption.

Iranians also noted that the overseas wars the government was waging, especially in Syria and Yemen, were more evidence of many lies Iranians were told about the state of Iranian military technology. In Syria, there were no Iranian warplanes or anti-aircraft systems. All the aerial successes were carried out by modern Russian jet fighters operated by the Russian Air Force. There were some Iranian UAVs in action but all they seemed to do when used against the Israelis is promptly get shot down. Meanwhile, the Israeli Air Force regularly bombed Iranian bases. In Yemen Arab pilots in modern warplanes were using smart bombs to regularly hit the Iran-backed Shia rebels. Worse, over a hundred Iranian made ballistic missiles had been fired into Saudi Arabia and all were shot down by the Arabas using American Patriot air defense systems.

How was that possible? For years Iranians had been told that the Arabs could not handle that technology. Yet there had always been regular commercial contact between Iranians and Arabs, especially those in Kuwait and the smaller Arab Gulf states like the UAE (United Arab Emirates). There was always chatter about how the Arabs used a lot of foreigners to maintain and operate their modern aircraft. But for decades the chatter (and local news media) showed more Arab pilots flying those jets. It was now clear that there were Arab pilots getting into those jets and going off to deliver smart bombs. In the UAE there were even Arab women flying military aircraft. One female UAE F-16 pilot served long enough to become a squadron commander. For years the Iranian government had, with some success, been able to dismiss all this use of Arab jet fighter pilots and Patriot Air Defense system operators as lies and propaganda. But it was all true, as were the stories of Israeli military superiority. That included the news that Israel had a squadron of American F-35 stealth fighters in service and some had flown undetected over Iranian forces in Syria. The Iranian people were not protesting a few lies by their government but a long list of misleading items and many outright falsehoods.

These realizations and revelations brought into question the many new weapons and aircraft the Iranian government had announced over the years. This stuff never seemed to get into action. Suddenly Iranians realized they had been lied to about all those wonder weapons. In particular, this included an Iranian “stealth fighter” that had been publicized since 2013 but had apparently never flown, much less demonstrated its stealth capabilities. In early 2017 the Iranian government announced a flyable prototype of their 2013 Qaher stealth fighter. The foreign Iranian language (Farsi) satellite TV shows reported how and why the new Qaher was a fake. In the past, such revelations were dismissed by Iranian authorities as enemy propaganda but now more Iranians realized that the foreigners were telling the truth and it was their own government that was lying, and in a big way. A prime example of this was the Iranian stealth fighter.

Iranian weapon fantasies reached their peak in early 2013 with the announcement that they had developed a stealth fighter, the Qaher 313. It showed photos of a single engine fighter with some curious (to aeronautical engineers) features. The air intakes were too small, the airframe was similar to older (unsuccessful) American experimental designs, and the cockpit controls were the same as those used in one and two engine propeller driven aircraft. There was a video of the Qaher 313 in flight but nothing showing it landing or taking off. Engineers concluded that the Qaher 313 was a crude fake and that the aircraft seen in flight was a small remote-controlled model of the larger aircraft shown in a hangar. A deception like this was nothing new for Iran. In fact, this sort of thing has become a staple of Iranian media. The Qaher 313 was the most ambitious fake so far. Stealth tech is not something you can recycle from decades-old gear, nor is it something you can easily deceive the experts with.

The 2017 Qaher was larger, had two engines and was shown taxing, but not flying. Foreign aviation experts pointed out the features of this new Qaher which indicated it was just a larger fake and incapable of flight, much less successful use of stealth technology. The Iranian government even tried to answer these accusations, which were known to be accepted by a lot of Iranians, by saying the new Qaher was really a test model, for use in further development of Iranian stealth aircraft. This Qaher could be used for training or perhaps against enemy helicopters. A growing number of Iranians did not believe it and that was just one of many warning signs that a storm of popular protest was coming and it arrived with the winter at the end of 2017. Since then the protests have grown.

When the sanctions were being lifted after 2015 Iran was under pressure (internal and external) to get some of these wonder weapons into use and offer them for export. Nothing happened, except a few feeble announcements trying to justify the lack of action. In most cases, the government just ignored those queries. Apparently, Iran has handled the fantasy weapons queries over to their more radical military organization. Some of these wonder weapons, like the Azarakhsh missile, were introduced by an officer of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). Iranians know that you do not question or argue with the IRGC. At least that was the case until 2017.

The deceptive weapons programs continued after 2015, showing that the government did not expect to be called out about it. After all, they had been running this scam for decades and the Iranian people never seemed to catch on. For example, in late 2016 Iran held another media event to cheer up Iranians and amuse most foreigners. As usual, it was announced, with great fanfare and lots of pictures, the newest Iranian warship, the Shahid Nazeri. What was displayed was a 60 meter (180 feet) long catamaran with a small helicopter pad which was shown holding a light (under two ton) civilian helicopter. There were no visible weapons on the helicopter or the ship. The Iranians said Shahid Nazeri had a top speed of 50 kilometers an hour and could carry about a hundred passengers and crew. This was clearly a civilian design painted and presented as an unarmed warship.

A real warship of this type and design was recently (2014) put into service by Taiwan Called a Tuo Chiang class corvette it is a twin hull (catamaran) design that displaces 560 tons, is 60.4 meters long and has a top speed of 80 kilometers an hour. The crew of 41 operates several weapons systems, including 16 anti-ship missiles (8 each of Hsiung-feng 2 and 3 models) a 76mm cannon, a 20mm anti-missile autocannon, six torpedo tubes and four 12.7mm machine-guns. The Hsiung-feng 3 is described in Taiwan as a “carrier killer.”

How do we know Shahid Nazeri was pure propaganda? We know it because the Iranians have become obsessed with these "propaganda weapons" and announcing them regularly for decades. This is because the government found they could get away with just hacking something together from an existing Russian or American system and proclaim it to be a breakthrough weapon "designed and manufactured in Iran." It's all rather pathetic, and it all began during the 1980s when Iran and Iraq were fighting a nasty war. Some of the hacks worked, after a fashion. Iran created a longer range SCUD missile by the simple expedient of lengthening the missile for a larger fuel tank. This changed the flight characteristics of the missile but since these things were being fired at city size (as in Baghdad) targets, it didn't matter during the 1980s war with Iraq. Actually, the Iranians didn't really need the longer-range missiles because Baghdad was pretty close to the Iranian border. Iran actually got the technology for these SCUD mods from North Korea but Iranian press releases always touted the achievement as being the work of Iranian scientists and engineers.

The Shahid Nazeri was not the first such propaganda weapon Iran presented in 2016. In August they announced a number of new weapons, including a locally made UAV equipped with a communications jammer. A number of other new or improved weapons were showcased. One thing they all had in common was that none of them were new (airborne communications jammers go back to the early 1940s) and none of the more interesting ones will ever be seen in service, much less offered for export. These announcements are mainly for internal consumption. They are, in short, propaganda. What the Iranian government did not expect that a growing number of Iranians were realizing this as well.

Every year the Iranian media features several new weapons described as locally designed and produced. This was always meant to improve morale among a population that knew the country had been under an international arms embargo since the 1980s and not really able to compete when it comes to new technology developments or mass production of whatever is developed. All of this new stuff was fluff, with a bit of recycled reality to back it up. If you go back and look at the many Iranian announcements of newly developed, high tech weapons, all you find is a photo op for a prototype. Production versions of these weapons rarely show up and even fewer are mass produced. It’s all feel-good propaganda for the religious dictatorship that runs Iran and its supporters.

After 2003 the announcements became more ambitious, apparently in response to the impressive American weapons being used next door in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus in 2013, the Iranian Air Force announced that it had begun “mass production” of a new jet fighter, one that was designed and manufactured in Iran. This, according to the air force commander, means that Iran does not have to rely on foreign suppliers (all of whom are intimidated by international arms sanctions imposed on Iran). This is all a bit of dark humor because the aircraft in question was apparently the Saeqeh jet fighter. In 2012 it had been announced that three more of these had been produced and that fifteen had been delivered to the Iranian Air Force. In 2011, Iran announced that they had put into service their first squadron of twelve Saeqeh. It was in 2006 that Iran first displayed a modified American F-5 fighter and proclaimed the new "Saeqeh" as similar to the American F-18 jet fighter. Iran was apparently producing a clone of the 1960s era F-5 design, not a rival for the F-18. Their local manufacturing and international smuggling capabilities are certainly up to the task of obtaining the components needed for this. But all this is mainly a publicity stunt to reassure Iranians that, despite decades of international arms embargoes, Iran still has weapons that can defend the country.

This was not the first time Iran has run a stunt like this. But even with a redesigned tail and better electronics, the F-5 was still a low cost and low-performance aircraft. The Saeqeh was not the first Iranian attempt to rebuild F-5s. In the 1990s, they built a clone of the F-5E, calling it the Azarakhsh. There were apparently four of these in service at one time and further modifications of F-5 airframes produced the Saeqeh. A new Azarakhsh missile seems to indicate that the Azarakhsh jet fighter, or at least the name, has been recycled.

The Iranians had dozens of damaged F-5s from their 1980s war with Iraq, along with many more elderly F-5s that were un-flyable or barely so. In the late 1970s, Iran had nearly 300 F-5 aircraft but many were destroyed in combat with Iraq during the 1980s, or due to accidents, and most of the remainder just wore out.

The F-5E, the most recent F-5 model the Iranians had when the Islamic revolution took over in 1979, is an 11 ton aircraft, with a max speed of 1,700 kilometers an hour, and a range of some 1,400 kilometers. It was armed with two 20mm cannon and could carry about 3 tons of missiles and bombs. The Iranians had taken the basic F-5 frame and rebuilt it to hold 2 Russian engines. The Chinese did the same thing with the MiG-21 and produced the J-8 (a twin engine MiG-21) that turned out to be not worth the effort.

Although the Iranians were using Russian components (if only because these were better than Chinese ones), they probably had technical assistance (for a price) from China. The Chinese have a lot of experience reverse engineering Russian warplanes and developing variations. The Chinese are getting away from that because they finally realized that all they ended up with was a lot of crap fighters. After 2015 there were plans to build a new air force with expensive, and high tech, fighters imported from Russia or built under license (or just copied illegally). But that never got going because the corruption and mismanaged economy meant the money wasn’t there. Most Iranians had figured that out by 2017 and now the Iranian government is scrambling for some real solutions to the real problems decades of lies and bad government have created.

The IRGC came to dominate this creation of imagined new weapons and eventually got very sloppy and overly ambitious. The culmination of this trend was the Iranian stealth fighter. It turned out to be a powerful aircraft after all, but mainly for its ability to inspire a revolution against the IRGC and the religious dictatorship.

 


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