Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What can we expect from the Ir-140MP?

Iran's defence minister - BG Vahidi - recently made the announcement that the maritime patrol version of the Iran-140 (An-140 produced in Iran) has entered production and will be delivered to the armed forces "in the near future", this, according to Iran's PressTV.

As of Fall 2010 Iran's assembly plant had turned out nine Ir-140s with more rumoured to be on the way (1) While these are all suspected to be the basic transport/liaison variants, Iran has touted several different configurations for the aircraft over the years - including models outfitted for AWAC, personnel training, EW, geological survey, cargo/personnel transport, VIP transport, paratrooper deployment as well as, of course, maritime surveillance. (2)

HESA advertises that their aircraft can be used for: detecting targets both on and below the surface, search and rescue, countering smuggling, piracy and terrorism, protecting fisheries and other resources, pollution monitoring, maritime traffic policing. (3)

So assuming that a handful of these aircraft do enter service in the near future, how do they stack up against Iran's current maritime aircraft like the P-3? What about other MP aircraft from around the world? Fortunately, for once at least, there is official documentation that answers these very questions.

We know there is no single MP aircraft, but at least five different configurations offering varying capabilities ranging from crew training, to environmental protection, to sophisticated anti-submarine and surface surveillance. The five variants are the Ir-140-HMS-100, HMS-200, HMS-300, HMS-400, and HMS-500. In addition to the specific variants, HESA advertises several example layouts for roles such as fisheries protection or coastal patrol with altered equipment loads.

RDR-1600 (Quickstrike)
All of the variants can be assumed to have some common avionics. Mounted in the nose of the aircraft is a RDR-1600B weather/search and rescue radar which is made by the Australian company Quickstrike. The 1600B is a modern, fully digital X-band radar that is capable of being integrated with onboard navigation equipment as well as functioning as a terrain mapping radar. (4)

The aircraft is also outfitted with an identify-friend-or-foe (IFF) system, traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS), enhanced ground proximity warning system (EGPWS), INS/GPS navigation, radar altimeter, distance measuring equipment (DME) and tactical air navigation (TACAN) system.

Early models show it equipped with both anti-ship missiles (AShM) as well as torpedoes. It is unknown if this capability was retained in later designs.

The HMS-100 is outfitted for search-and-rescue (SAR) as well as basic maritime patrol (MP). Two observer stations fitted with bubble windows are located on both sides of the fuselage directly behind the cockpit. Observation is accomplished primarily via the Mk. 1 eyeball or portable binoculars and cameras. Behind this area is a passenger compartment with seating for 34. Alternately, it can also be outfitted with 18 seats and a four-passenger VIP compartment. At the rear of the aircraft is a rack containing both smoke markers and illumination flares, both used during SAR missions. A "SAR kit" can also be deployed from the rear service door, which likely contains a standard survival raft. The customary small galley and lavatory can also be found at the rear of the aircraft.

While its modest configuration restricts it's potential value in a high-intensity environment, the HMS-100 can still function as a low-cost peace-time alternative to, or as a trainer for, more advanced variants.

The HMS-200 is a step up from the HMS-100 though is still intended as a basic SAR/MP aircraft. It features a FLIR/TV camera in a ball mount on the chin of the aircraft. An operators station, located behind the observers station, features a VRR (a glorified VCR) and a video datalink. Other then this, the aircraft is identical to the HMS-100 with a passenger compartment, galley, smoke markers, SAR kit and lavatory.

No details. Interior layout is identical to HMS-200.

The HMS-400 features dedicated sea surface surveillance (SuS) capability in addition to the more basic MP and SAR duty. In addition to the video equipment of the HMS-200, the HMS-400 features electronics support measures (ESM) and counter-measure dispensing systems (CMDS).

ESMs are crucial in gathering signals intelligence (SIGINT) and are tasked with intercepting and classifying the RF emissions that have become so common in today's battlefield. ESM enables target detection and identification (for instance, you would know an F/A-18 is broadcasting it's APG-73 radar 73 km away to the south-east) as well as being able to use the data to develop and exploit better forms of offensive EW such as ECM/ECCM. On the HMS-400, two recievers pods are visible, one on the forehead of the aircraft, directly above the cockpit, and one on the belly in front of the landing gear.

The ESMs are likely integrated with the aircraft's defensive suite which includes a radar warning receiver (RWR) which cues an audible warning as well as the CMDS which fires chaff and/or flares to distract a homing missile. Optional warning systems includes as an IR-based missile warning receiver (MWR) and a laser warning receiver (LWR). Optional countermeasures include a towable decoy. Most interestingly though, another optional countermeasure is the ATIRJ which is a subcomponent of the US's AN/ALQ-212 system which is meant to defend against MANPADS-type missiles. It works by jamming the seeker of a closing IR-guided missile with lasers mounted on rotating heads. The system dates from the 1990s so it's certainly not inconcievable that Iran got their hands on some; there is also the possibility that HESA is using stock-imagery which, of course, is very common in Iranian media as anyone who has read an article about Iran's Saeqeh fighter jet that is accompanied by a picture of an Israeli F-16 knows.

In the interior of the aircraft, an additional operators station linked with the ESM/CM is located next to the first on the starboard side  of the aircraft. Four VIP seats is all that remains for passenger space and the main avionics array (MAR) has replaced the galley which now shares a spot with the smoke marker rack. The lavatory and SAR kit have remained put.

The HMS-500 is the model that most everybody thinks of when they think of the maritime patrol version of the Ir-140. Representations of it are always show in a blue and white camouflage pattern similar to what's worn by the IRIN's P-3s. Compared to the HMS-400, the HMS-500 is also capable of sub-surface surveillance (SSS) and pollution control (PC).

The stinger-like magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) jutting out of the tailfin gives this version it's distinctive appearance. This device does what its name suggests which is detect anomalies in the earth's magnetic field which submarines generate. This is also the reason for its stinger-like appearance; it needs to be completely clear of any interfering metals.

On the belly of the aircraft, in between the ESM pod and the FLIR turret is another blister pod which houses the microwave radiometer (MWR). MWRs are used to passive radiation coming off the ocean which in turn is used to detect and monitor oil spills - a logical problem within the Persian Gulf.

On the inside of the aircraft, a total of four operator consoles now line the starboard side in front of VIP seating. Behind the seating is an assembly which houses sonobuoys; sonobuoys are disposable, air-dropped sonar devices (both active and passive) used to detect submarines.

At the tail of the aircraft is the galley, MAR, lavatory and SAR kit.

How does it stack up?

Within Iranian service, there two, possibly three types of aircraft that the I4-140 is intended to replace: the P-3F Orion, the F-27-400M and possibly, modified versions of the C-130H.

The IRIN's primary long-range maritime surveillance aircraft is the P-3F which is reaching the end of its lifespan (as are all their US built aircraft). Currently 2-3 are operational at any given time and operate at an unknown level of readiness. On one hand, the decades of use may have taken their toll on both the airframe and the sub-systems, but on the other hand, Iran has overhauled and retrofitted them to some unknown degree. There have been no external additions that might give hints as to what these modifications entail. When they were originally delivered they were fitted with weather and surveillance radars as well as nose-mounted EO cameras giving the P-3 surface surveillance . Sonobouys and a stinger-mounted MAD meanwhile provide ASW capability. Iran's P-3Fs can be armed with lightweight Mk 46 torpedos, depth charges, or gravity bombs, but not AShMs. Overall, the P-3Fs are closely comparable in terms of capability to early P-3A/B variants.

Some of the IRIN's F-27-400Ms have been converted to basic maritime patrol duty and have even been reported to have been upgraded with avionics for this role. However, like the P-3Fs, no new external antenna or pods are visible that would give a clue as to the accuracy of this statement or not. At any rate, it is likely that the F-27 would be comparable to the HMS-100 in terms of mission role. Two-to-three aircraft are currently operational.

During the Iran-Iraq war, when the demand for maritime surveillance was at its highest and the readiness of the P-3s was the lowest, an unknown number of C-130Hs were converted for the maritime surveillance role. The exact nature of these modifications are unknown but may be similar in nature to the C-130H Ibex ELINT projects undertaken by the IIAF. It is unknown if any C-130s continue to serve in this role.

At the end of the day, the Ir-140MP is not a replacement for the P-3 on a 1-for-1 basis. On a purely mechanical basis, the fact that, empty, its a third the weight of a P-3 means that it's going to have a shorter range (almost a quarter), lower endurance and a lower internal volume available for mission-related subsystems. An aircraft with the range of the P-3 (or beyond!) would be perfectly suited for the IRIN's stated mission which is to project influence through the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea from the Horn of Africa to the tip of India. Recent operations like a continued presence in the Gulf of Aden and visits to countries like Syria and Sri Lanka emphasize the IRIN's shift towards a more expeditionary role. These ambitions however have remained hamstrung in many ways by the limited aerial support role of the IRIN. Surface ships like the Alvand frigate are lacking in terms of modern sensor fits. Meanwhile, only one-two submarines are available at any given time for patrol beyond the protection of the Gulf of Oman. So, by default, the responsibility of detecting and identifying potential targets falls to naval aviation as they are the only ones with the potential capability to cover such a large geographic area. Light aircraft like the Ir-140 or F-27 don't have the range to conduct patrols of any significant length beyond the Gulf of Oman.

At the end of the day, the Ir-140 is what it is, a light, turboprop aircraft, with capabilities to match. Within the context of the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman it's range and capabilities are more then sufficient and are comparable to a number of other light patrol aircraft like the F-50, CN-235 or any of the Dassault Falcons. In fact, the aircraft's most important asset is the basic fact that they're new - zero flight hours, brand new engines and brand new airframes. Relying on older aircraft like the P-3 is dangerous because the remaining flying hours left have to be shepherded and carefully guarded with intensive maintenance and support, all of which translate into less missions flown. The impact of modern, sophisticated avionics suites like what should be presumed to exist on the Ir-140-HMS-500 should not be discounted either. Even a relatively inexpensive radar like the RDR-1600 used in the Ir-140-MP is able to produce a much more narrow beam in contrast to the APS-115 on the P-3F which in turn gives a much higher resolution, allowing the radar to be used for tasks like terrain mapping or SAR where the radar on a P-3 would be simply insufficient.

Works cited:
(1) Iran Ready to Mass-Produce Iran-140 Plane. Fars News. Oct. 23rd 2010. http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8908011442
(2) As per official HESA and MODLEX documentation
(3) HESA's IR-140 Information Page
(4) Quickstrike Website

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Zulfiqar-3 Turret

Sometimes the best information comes from the lest expected places. In this case, the first shots of the interior of the Zulfiqar-3 turret came not from a new, public expo or documentary, but from a poor quality, many-year old video that gave us the first images of the Mobarez. In fact, screenshots from the video are frequently seen around the web.

But upon closer examination, a turret belonging to the Zulfiqar-3 can also be observed undergoing some form of work. While it appears to be under construction, there does appear to be some form of camouflage already applied to the exterior which would only indicate a heavy overhaul (since paint schemes are applied at the end of the process, not half-way through.

Regardless, several key features confirm it's identity.

1) Lifting eyes - visible on the lower-right side of the structure
2) Turret ring - visible on top of the structure
3) Gun mount - visible through turret ring. Man in the tan-coat is pointing directly at it and the gun mantlet.
4) Geometry - The turret is turned upside-down and facing away from the camera. The camera is looking at the left-hand turret size with the turret front obscured and the bustle out of view.

Unfortunately, there's not a great deal of information one can discern from the video, thanks in part to the low quality. One thing you can tell however is that I was a but off with my estimate on the location of the turret ring - it's a bit further forward then  imagined. While one can see the interior wall of turret, I'm unable to translate this into a worthwhile estimate. However, it is worth noting that you can see the shadow from the turret bottom being cast into the interior wall.

Further Pictures:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ruminations on the "Diary of a Revolutionary Guard Conscript"

PBS's Tehran Bureau is always a good place to go to get the viewpoint of the liberal-secular-democratic bloc (incl. "the greens) in and out of Iran and last week they published the account of an unnamed correspondent in Tehran who was conscripted into the military and ended up as a soldier in the IRGC. Interestingly enough, his account delves into the training process and provides ample material for us military enthusiests to pick through. Here are my observations on reading the article.

Link - Drafted: Diary of a Revolutionary Guard Conscript

General thoughts on Training: The entire process takes about 2 months (62 days) which is comparable to most nations basic training, such as the US's 8 week program. However it appears that for most conscripts, this is the end of the line and they do not go on to advanced speciality training schools (such as the armoured warfare or artillery schools within the Artesh). Most of the specific day-to-day training techniques he describes are standard throughout the world although he frames them, perhaps unfairly, as being particularly brutal.

The author makes a note of saying that he only fired a "mere 64 bullets from my old and rusty kalishnikov" - only two magazines worth of live ammunition. While this might not be considered to out of the ordinary for basic training (for example, the USAF doesn't begin live weapons training until week five), it must be remembered that these soldiers don't continue onto infantry or other specialization schools; the two magazines are it. This calls into question the competency of these recruits at a very fundamental level.

In the final weeks they undergo a series of mock exercises in the field as a finale to their training. Afterwords, they spend the remainder of their service "in garrison" at bases across the nation. In this particular case, the author is sent to the Kurdistan region in western Iran.

Omnipresence of Cronyism: The authors story validates much of the common wisdom held about Iran and corruption. In 2010 Iran scored 2.2 out of 10 in a report by Transparency international ranking it 146 out of 178 countries; this account of the behaviour of the IRGC gives plenty of examples to support this ranking. Before training even begins, the choice of which service a conscript is inducted into depends on a number of factors. The air force is reported to be the cushiest, but the is difficult to get into without the right connections. Counter-intuitively, the police force is said to be the most reviled because it has the most hardest training and requires dangerous postings. The IRGC, unlike the Artesh has strict standards of Islamic behaviour but has much easier training and relaxed discipline. This leads many well-connected individuals  serving in the IRGC. According to the author, a Basij connection never hurts either.

This trend would inevitably lead to a decrease in readiness since the IRGC would lose what makes them an "elite" force - their high morale gained through ideological unity. The IRGC can't function as a vanguard to the Islamic Republic if it's soldiers only viewed service as a way to avoid work, or as a fast-track to political/social success. Although, to the IRGC's credit, the author does mention that this criticism doesn't necessarily extend beyond the pure "conscript" cadre. 

Corruption also appears to impact unit readiness on another level.  Within the IRGC itself, cronyism is still a feature as soldiers buy the favour of their commanding officers; for instance, the author bribed his base commander in Kurdistan with free auto insurance to be transferred to an easier station. He also describes how knowing the right people can get you extra rations, smuggled goods like cell phones and MP3 players, exemption from duty, and passes. This likely corresponds with a lack in discipline as rules and orders no longer have force of law.

Deleterious Effects of Conscription: At a very basic level, Iran shows that it's not invulnerable to the usual weaknesses of a conscript army - many of the soldiers simply do not want to be there, and so readiness, morale and overall war-fighting capability suffers.  In fact, the author puts it perfectly himself: "everyone -- from the commanders on down knows that they can't make soldiers out of us; the training is perfunctory, the mood is somber, and discipline is mostly non-existent ... Most of us are so disgusted that we have been drafted into this life that we try to resist everything, from obediance to discipline ; all suffer because of our reluctance. " Combine this with the cronyism mentioned above, and a situation develops where the rank and file are filled with people who are doing their best to coast through their service with as little disturbance and get on with their life. Commanders meanwhile are too busy shuffling around yet another batch of recruits to invest time in what are obviously not career soldiers.

While many will say that in the event of a war, "every Iranian citizen will rally around their government and armed forces" - a statement that, while being accurate, misses the point that this kind of peace-time organization doesn't produce high-readiness units. In other words, fervor and patriotism doesn't make up for the ability to shoot a rifle accurately.

 This is yet another factor diluting the supposed elite ideological nature of of the IRGC. It would be one thing if the IRGC only admitted dedicated soldiers who actively chose the corps, much like the reputation the Marines hold within the US, but as soon as they start recruiting from the pool of conscripts at large, they lose this edge, especially if they have the reputation as an "easy" branch.

Deleterious Effect of Focus on Religious and Political Indoctrination: First off, it's important to note that 'indoctrination' isn't necessarily a value judgement despite it's popular negative connotations. It's also a touchy subject because any form of military training is fundamentally an exercise in control over an individuals will. However the process the author describes crosses the line of what would be considered reasonable, even allowing generously for the unique identity of an organization like the IRGC.

The author writes that: "There is no talk of military tactics ... but the indoctrination is serious. Most of the time is spent talking about the enemies of religion and state -- everything from the Fetne 88 ... to the Baha'is." While this was only the first week of training and it would be unreasonable to assume that this alone is an accurate representation of training, however since he never recants this initial observation and goes on to provide supplementary evidence saying that he has been deemed an adequate soldier because he has fired a small number of bullets and has memorized the Quran, is probably is accurate of his entire experience. 

The author also indicates that this training transcends traditional bounds by directly reflecting the anti-liberal stance of the Supreme leader and conservative factions allied with the IRGC. According to the author the representative of the SL, Mojtaba Zolnour, gave a speech declaring that figures like like Mousavi, Rafsanjani, Karroubi, and Khatami would be dealt with "...when their time is ripe...".

This should come as no surprise as the IRGC has always been identified as a praetorian guard type unit with a close relationship to the Supreme Leader. The fact that almost every article about them in the Western press begins with the words: "The Elite IRGC..." is thanks to the fact that it's members have always been reported to be highly dedicated, fanatical zealots that would lay down their lives for the Velayat-e Faqih at a moments notice.

 The author contends that this may no longer be a universal truth. As mentioned above the effects of conscription and corruption have eroded this advantage by replacing zealots with amateurs. He admits that many in the officer, political and intelligence cadre are dedicated believers but insists that the rank-and-file largely couldn't give a damn. "In my unit, most of the cadre, with the exception of a few in the political and cultural divisions ... did not care about politics".

Lack of Discipline / Professionalism: A major theme that runs through the entire report and is already evident in the points above is that the IRGC is an organization beset with problems of professionalism and lax discipline. Corruption has created conditions where any rule can be bybassed by the right connection or a suitable bribe.

The only rules the author reports being enforced are the wearing of the uniform, having short hair, a beard and being on time. He describes garrison as lounging around, jumping to attention when the political cadre comes by, and then relaxing after they leave. The author himself reports being at his station 15 out of every 30 days - 50% absenteeism.

It goes without saying that discipline is a key metric when evaluating any armies war-fighting capability. Disciplined soldiers can better be commanded their officers, will hold their position and perform better then ill-disciplined soldiers who distrust their officers, operate without strict command, and are much more likely to break in combat.

Overall Low Quality of Equipment and Facilities: This is a relatively minor point overall, but bears mentioning. It's to be expected that a country that has to supply for a large conscript force like Iran would be unable to provide every soldier with their own tailor-made uniform, boots, new rifles, or body armour. Even though this is to be expected the author also describes that the bases are lacking in basic hygiene as well as supplying insufficient nutrition which would have a further compounding effect on unit readiness and morale.

Maintaining Perspective: In the beginning of this piece, I mentioned the fact that the Tehran Bureau is predominantly a pro-reformist site because it's clear that this is article by an unnamed correspondent is not an objective piece. The author describes himself as a liberal agnostic who despises the IRGC. Moreover it's clear that he's opposed to the idea of mandatory military service and resents having been forced into it.

Because of this bias, we should take his claims with a grain of salt as large of Everest because of his strong incentive to portray the IRGC in the way he did and, even given pure intentions, his work would still be tainted by his personal experience. There's simply no way to verify any of his claims because there isn't anyone else stepping up to give their account of what military training and service is like to the English-speaking community at large. (On a side note, if anyone who is reading this has gone through the Iranian military as a conscript or volunteer and would like to rebut these points, I would be more then happy to host it on this blog)

However his narrative can still provide accurate information so long as we keep it in perspective. Specifically, we have to realize that his experience is not necessarily universal. While unmotivated, low-readiness units like the authors must certainly exist, there are also much more competent units that certainly exist as well (such as the IRGC's airborne commandos), we just don't know which are which, which in many ways, is the crux of the issue.