I know people are waiting for me to post a big picture by picture analysis of Iran’s unveiled “F-313” not-so-fighter fighter. I don’t think this is necessary, obviously the aircraft is questionable for many, many reasons. None-the-less I still want to give my conceptual analysis here as after having a few days to conduct some light research pertaining to the topic and letting the photos of the aircraft gestate, as usual, I have come to some conclusions that are both unique and I believe compelling, especially when compared with what you have probably read splattered elsewhere across the net.
Ok first off I want to highlight where Iran really hurt themselves on the PR game when it comes to the article they presented earlier this week. There are two particular points I want to highlight:
1.) By showing that ridiculous footage of the F-313 “flying” on a supposed test flight, which was clearly a model airplane as stated in the piece I posted just as the story broke. By doing so the Iranians looked like they were blatantly attempting to ruse their global “audience” in an alarmingly childish way. The identity of that radio controlled model has now been confirmed and a big thanks to Aviationinteler Nico for shooting over the evidence:
Supposed wind-tunnel testing of the F-313 configuration:
2.) By calling the aircraft that they put on display a “new fighter” they once again totally discredited whatever actual value showing off that machine to the world could have had. I mean why not say its the beginning of a long road-map of research and development that will end in Iran fielding a low observable indigenous fighter? How on earth could they look at that thing and say “boy is this gonna give America, Israel and their allies something to worry about?” To clarify, not because the aircraft clearly does not even come close to comparing to other “stealth” aircraft but because it is almost certainly not airworthy. I realize that Iran’s leadership, and especially the IRGC, has a grotesque flare for bravado, and overstatements, but the whole idea that this was a new game changing “fighter” was comical and I have to be honest, I had a good laugh too. But once I blocked out Iran’s soaring claims and looked at the bigger picture and the evidence at hand, a much more relevant possibility began to emerge.
So with this in mind it really leaves us with the question of what the heck is the F-313? I have a couple of ideas, both of these theories are much more important than just trying to figure out if what was displayed by the Iranians was an airworthy machine or not, and yes that too is a piece of the puzzle which I will address. As always I aim to provide a “full spectrum” analysis to my readers, so bear with me as I walk you through this.
Theory 1: The F-313 is an absolutely horrible attempt at mocking up a totally fake indigenous stealth fighter intended to give the US and Israel pause and to showcase Iran’s improving technological capabilities to the world. In other words it is just a video of an RC plane whizzing around and a fiberglass and wood shell with some commercially available avionics thrown in to make it look like maybe it could have a purpose. A propaganda campaign with wings, and a poor one at that because Iran’s claims clearly did not match the specimen on display.
Still the Iranians must have known that the world would immediately realize that this little aircraft is at best an idea that has never taken flight or at worst a fantastical model of what an insular engineer thinks a futuristic low observable jet should look like. I find it incredibly hard to believe that if Iran was simply after a propaganda stunt that they would not have come up with something far, far more menacing, in its potential capabilities and aesthetics. Iran does have a robust aerospace engineering academic corps, one that when paired with espionage has been highly effective at keeping incredibly complex foreign aircraft flying decades after anyone thought it possible. See the F-14, of which about two dozen are still in service in upgraded fashion some 30+ years after all support for them was embargoed. Additionally Iran does have the internet and they have access to an avalanche of open source information regarding stealth design. Just go pick up the Aerofax book on the F-22 for instance, every inch of that aircraft is covered in minute detail in it. So if your goal was to create an imposter stealth aircraft, all show and no go, your budget would not be an issue nor would your access to information on the aesthetics and particulars of existing stealthy designs to integrate into something visually new, yet technologically familiar.
So to sum it up I cannot, I will not, believe that this is simply a very poor attempt at spooking the US and Israel and “showcasing” Iranian blossoming ingenuity. The design is too poor, the finish is too shabby and the spotlight was too bright. If I am wrong than Iran’s leadership is so delusional, isolated and drunk on its own ego that there is no reason why they won’t take on the US in the Straits of Hormuz or attempt to irradiate Israel from the map without understanding that they will not live to tell their next generation about it. Such ignorance is incredibly hard to believe, especially for a state that has survived for decades under incredibly harsh circumstances.
So if the “F-313” is not a total fake than what the hell is it as it is clearly not what they claim it is?:
Theory #2: The aircraft displayed as the F-313, although not a flyable aircraft (yet), is part of a new program to design and produce a light weight, low-cost and low observable indigenous fighter aircraft.
I believe that the aircraft displayed on that turntable is a mockup of a design that the Iranian aerospace sector, and possibly the IRGC, are moving forward with as a proof of concept technology demonstrator and eventually a real production aircraft. For decades, throughout the jet age really, the western aircraft manufacturers designed aircraft on paper and once a configuration was loosely locked into place the firm would build a full-scale mockup to work through engineering issues in scale and to market their design. Keep in mind these mockups were almost always smaller than the final production configuration, had strange oddities and imperfections and were built with non-aircraft grade materials to greatly save time and costs. Often these aircraft would look less than realistic, but still they were a worthwhile engineering and business endeavor.
Iran’s “F-313” appears to be an engineering mockup. It is made out of what seems to be fiberglass (you can see it below the cockpit rim) of adequate workmanship. Almost all of the major subsystems are hidden from view, of particular note is the motor. The “pocket” surrounding the exhaust nozzle is not even finished with heat insulating materials, in other words it would melt. There appears to be no weapons bays of any kind. The landing gear’s ability to retract is not clear. The canopy is made out of basic molded plexiglass which would have poor side view quality but decent front view quality. Additionally, there appears to be no latching system to even lock the canopy down. The cockpit is tiny, to the point it actually looks built for a small person. Now this is an interesting point, the ejection seat is actually scaled way down, the stick is equally short, and the instrument panel matches these characteristics. So it is not like the F-313 just has a cramped cockpit, it looks like it was designed FOR a smaller person. More on this later. Then you have the avionics, they look like some commercially available off the shelf basic EFIS components and some other standard cockpit interfaces and their final configuration still appears to be in flux.
Even with all these issues and imperfections the jet does have some things that lend itself to being an elaborate engineering mockup of decent quality. It has avionics, an ejection seat, a stick, intake covers and exhaust cover, a pitot tube, marker lights, articulating control surfaces (and yes “experts” the canards are partially articulated like on the SAAB JAS-37), a design that would potentially not require fly-by-wire flight control and many small details including subsystem vents and other minutia appear to be included as well. To me, the article displayed to the public clearly looks like a mockup not of a production fighter but of a proof of concept experimental testing aircraft, otherwise known as a “technology demonstrator.” This means that performance such as top speed, acceleration and high-g and angle of attack capability are not its key objectives, it is to test the aircraft’s low observability, stability and other primary concepts.
Fielding stripped down, sub-scale, technology demonstrators and proof of concept experimental prototypes is not the Iranian way of developing advanced combat aircraft folks, it is the American way! If you saw the Have Blue technology demonstrator (precursor to the YF-117) back in the late 1970s would you have believed it was a precursor to a viable weapon system? Even with its small size, “tiny cockpit,” featureless exterior, lack of a weapons bay, and tiny intakes and exhausts? Probably not!
Technology demonstrators are built as cheaply and as fast as possible. Thus they save money via decreasing weight, thrust, creature comforts, weaponization and especially performance. I laughed yesterday when I read three different site’s analysis stating that the F-313’s inlets are too small and the exhaust does not have an afterburner nozzle and the airspeed indicator only goes to 300 units (probably knots). Come on guys, use your deductive reasoning, you could have said the exact same things about Have blue! Do you really need massive air intakes and a huge nozzle to accommodate a single J-85? A motor we know the Iranians have reverse engineered and are producing? Go take a look at the size of an F-5A’s inlet and I think your position will change. With the J-85 in mind, maybe some of the clear attempts at saving weight for the technology demonstration phase had to do with the fact that they could only use a single 2,600lb class motor. An F-5’s empty weight is 10,000lbs. I doubt that this little composite jet (F-313) tips the scales over 6,000lbs. Thus a single J85 would probably serve fine for experimental testing. Back to the miniaturized cockpit, if you are cash, weight and thrust strapped and need to prove a design’s viability, building a cockpit for a small pilot can save you weight and money. In the US we would just throw more money at the problem and build a bigger, heavier more expensive jet and choose a larger motor to go along with it as we have many indigenous motor classes to choose from. In Iran they could very well say let’s just use a smaller pilot for the test program because we have to work within our indigenous capabilities and budget. It actually makes great sense and I doubt any discrimination lawsuits would be brought before the Supreme Leader for doing so!
Not just Have Blue but all other known technology demonstrators had kit-built looks, relatively poor performance, and used often times commercially available components to lower cost. Just look at Boeing’s cool looking “Bird Of Prey,” which shares the drooped wingtip design with the F-313, or Northrop’s “Tacit Blue” BSAX experimental aircraft (make sure to read my special feature on Tacit Blue), both look like bad movie props not operational aircraft, yet they were some of the most successful experimental combat aircraft programs that we have ever been allowed to know about and both paved the way for a myriad of new operational technologies and combat aircraft designs. Keep in mind these are just the few technology demonstrators we know about, and there are likely dozens and dozens of similar quality that still remain top secret.
As for the remote-controlled scale F-313 featured in the Iranian press release as the actual aircraft that was featured in the Iranian “test flight” clip, I don’t think this model was built just for propaganda purposes. Iran does have serious budgetary and technical constraints that the US does not have. Designing an experimental aircraft on CAD software, then flying it as a model for preliminary aerodynamic validation is good science, especially considering that this jet clearly does not possess fly-by-wire subsystems. Heck, even America is doing this now in some cases instead of building full-sized, or even smaller scaled manned test articles. Check out the X-48 and the X-36 for goodness sake!
So with all this in mind, YES I do think the aircraft called the F-313 that Iran showed the world is a piece of a larger emerging aerospace program that could one day lead to an actual operational variant, although one that is larger, more robust and that can carry a sensible payload. Additionally, if the Iranians took the time to show this thing off I think that the actual flying prototype, which will look very similar to the conceptual mockup, is under construction, or about to fly, very soon. In fact even this mockup could possibly be modified to fly, although I highly doubt it. Still, in regards to the aircraft displayed, what is not to say that maybe its hokey canopy is just a stand-in until the real one is ready for installation as forming a continuous piece of high-grade pyrex is no easy task, and maybe the motor has simply not been installed, along with its related nozzle and heat shielding. Maybe the gear can retract, do any of the “experts” claim to have walked around the aircraft in person or possess highly detailed photos of the gear geometry? Once again I do not believe that this specimen is a flying machine, but I must stress once again that even American experimental technology demonstrators do not look like their production cousins, they look cheap and flimsy! Why? BECAUSE THEY ARE.
What would Iran even have to gain if the displayed aircraft did not even have a shred of truth to it? A flash in the pan news story that will only totally discredit them down the road when nothing more ever emerges? Also, just because folks can point out certain areas where the aircraft’s low observability is degraded via its design, that does not mean that Iran is trying to make an invisible aircraft! Use an ounce of damn creativity people! Iranians are asymmetric warriors, it is how they fight via necessity. Are you telling me that an aircraft that is cheap to produce, with a small radar, visible, and IR signature fielded in mass is not a threat? In many ways it is a larger threat than just spending gobs of money developing a jet that you will only end up being able to afford a few of, and that is if designing such a machine is even within the farthest reaches of your nation’s technological capabilities in the first place.
I see an aircraft like the F-313, once evolved, could be a serious quantitative wildcard to deal with. With such a strategy in mind there is no reason it would look like any high-end US, European, Russian or Chinese fighter product. This aircraft would not even need to carry a radar. It could fly very low at subsonic speeds and employ infra-red missiles during pop-up attacks. And if you call yourself an aerospace expert yet can honestly tell me that a low flying, sub 10k lb, composite jet with stealthy features is a massive radar target than please call the Navy and tell them they are fools to employ similar targets as aggressors against their ships and aircraft in training. Let’s not also rule out the potential for this jet to be produced in an unmanned fashion. In this format the F-313 could work as a reusable cruise missile or even a potent decoy. Its limited range would most likely make line of sight data-link problems that Iran faces a non issue. Lastly the F-313, if it continues on as an extremely lightweight fighter, could operate out of small airfield and/or dispersed operating sites, a feature that would be key in almost every external conflict Iran faces today.
I find it very frustrating that even after a couple of days nobody can use their imagination or put themselves in Iran’s shoes when it comes to what they can do to make a difference during protracted air combat with their limited resources, both monetary and technological. Are we so spoiled in the western world that we cannot see the potential of an adaptive threat emerging right in front of our eyes? Sure, it was a big laugh when Iran claimed that they are going to unveil a new indigenous “stealth fighter” for the world to see. We are so used to seeing modern marvels, almost works of art, such as the substantial F-22 and J-20 emerge to oohs and awes that we cannot recognize a totally different approach as a valid capability and a strategic necessity of a potential asymmetric foe? I don’t care how many F-22s, or Rafales you have, if you are confronted with dozens of dispersed small low-signature fighters that are hard to spot visually, on radar or even infra-red detection devices than you are in a world of hurt. You only carry so many missiles per aircraft per mission, and unlike the enemy, your country has valued a pilot’s life to the point that paying $300M for a single fighter is an acceptable investment. When you don’t have that type of money to spend but you still want to put up some kind of fight your options are usually exploiting a quantitative advantage over a qualitative one and building your weapons with attrition and/or expendability in mind. The F-313 may prove to be an aircraft tailor-made for such a strategy.
As for what you hear elsewhere in the press, the rampant charge to blow off the Iranian’s announcement, no matter how strange, as a clownish joke, sickens me. I have heard almost every “expert’s” verbatim opinion regarding if the exhibited aircraft can fly or not rather than evaluating the potential for such a design concept as whole. Asinine comments that get huge play such as Cyrus Amini of BBC News saying that the aircraft “looks like a cheap copy of the American F-22.” WHAT? So is every aircraft that is built with low observability and air to air operations in mind a cheap copy of the F-22? How does this thing have any relation to an F-22? Was an F-5 just a cheap copy of an F-4 too? Laughable and totally ignorant statement! Israeli aeronautics expert Tal Inbar said, “It’s not a plane, because that’s not how a real plane looks. Iran doesn’t have the ability to build planes. Plain and simple.” And China probably had no way of building a low observable fighter as well until they did. This is such superficial reporting and analysis that it is personally insulting. For some reason none of these folks could not even attempt to connect a few dots to at least put forth the possibility that this is an actual fighter aircraft program that will follow a similar pattern of development as America’s cutting edge air combat technologies? Did these “experts” really expect to see a ready for battle, fully developed stealth fighter sitting in that hanger from a country with a limited technological capabilities and monetary resources? Sure I get it, you can laugh at the big claims and the visual let down at first, but days later these people have not even critically evaluated the situation beyond stating “it’s not a real operational fighter.”
I just don’t know what more to say about this, I am just blown away that these folks have the platform they do. Their superficial commentary does a disservice to all those who look for answers from those who are supposedly in “the know” when it comes to military aviation matters. The Iranians are not as stupid as people think, they have a real vested interest in defending their nation and they are historically incredibly resourceful warriors. Why not at least move beyond their soaring claims and look at what could very well be? A bit of game theory, humility and knowledge of historical aircraft developmental trends can go a long, long way in accurately assessing the F-313’s theoretical potential.,,
Remember this piece of wise military advice: Arrogance can get you killed…