Following confirmation from Iranian and U.S. sources that the Iranian Air Force is set to receive Russian Su-35S heavyweight fighter jets by March 2024, speculation has grown regarding the other kinds of Russian assets the country may acquire as the two countries strengthen security ties across a broad spectrum of areas. Iran had long been expected to emerge as a major client for Russian arms ever since it was confirmed in 2015 that the United Nations Security Council’s arms embargo on the country would be expiring in October 2020. Although the possibility of transfers of assets such as fighter jets, air defence systems and mobile anti ship cruise missile systems has long been raised, one of the newest possibilities reported but not confirmed to be under discussion is that Russia will equip Iran with modern attack helicopters. While fighter combat aircraft provide long overdue replacements for Iran’s Vietnam War era combat fleet, the state of the country’s attack helicopter fleet is poorer still with any major acquisitions expected to be revolutionary.
The Iranian attack helicopter fleet is currently comprised of approximately 50 AH-1J aircraft acquired from the United States in the 1970s. Iran has made significant acquisitions of Soviet helicopters in the past, albeit all of them transports namely the very large Mi-171 – of which approximately 20 serve in the Army and a further 5 in the Revolutionary Guard Corps. These are the country’s most modern rotary wing aircraft, with the remainder being older American Vietnam War era designs such as Chinooks. Russia is currently offering three attack helicopter classes for export, any one of which would represent a very major improvement over the classes Iran currently fields. These include the Mi-28 and Ka-52, which were developed in parallel by rival design bureaus, and the older Mi-24 which entered service in 1972 but is available in several heavily modernised variants.
Iranian forces notably have experience operating alongside Russian attack helicopters, having done so in Syrian counterinsurgency operations where the Russian Military deployed all three classes, while the Syrian Arab Army deployed the Mi-24. Iraq is also one of three foreign operators of the Mi-28, and Iranian forces were closely integrated with multiple Iraqi militias that worked closely with government forces in counterinsurgency operations there. Overseas operations by Iranian forces also provided Russian forces with experience operating alongside Iranian drones, which provided extensive air support, culminating in Russian acquisitions of such drones for its military campaign in Ukraine today.
The Mi-28 and Ka-52 represent a new generation of attack helicopters significantly more modern than any comparable aircraft in NATO service, with the American Apache widely used in West and by Western-aligned states coming from the same older generation as the Mi-24. Of the two newer helicopters the Mi-28 appears to be the more likely choice, with the Ka-52 being a more costly aircraft better optimised to maritime strike roles and highly prized for its very unique cruise missile strike capabilities. With an unrivalled flight performance, the Mi-28, can carry up to 16 anti tank missiles or 80 80mm unguided rockets, with the latest Mi-28NM variant having been employed in Syria and more recently on tank hunting missions in Ukraine. The variant integrates new VK-2500P engines providing a 13% increase in speed, and benefits from all-round visibility provided by new sensors, and an upgraded fire control system among other notable enhancements. The aircraft can also carry R-74 infrared guided air to air missiles, which combined with their high manoeuvrability makes them potentially very capable in visual range air to air combat.
The Mi-28 could prove valuable both for overseas operations, including supporting Iraqi forces if needed, as well as for counterinsurgency domestically amid signs of growing Western support for anti government elements in the country. One outstanding question should Iran acquire new attack helicopters is which service of the armed forces would operate the aircraft, as there remains a significant possibility that the Revolutionary Guard Corps, rather than the Army or Air Force, could be the recipient. The Corps has shouldered the large majority of the burden of operations in Iraq and Syria, operates the country’s ballistic missile arsenal and a large portion of its drone forces, and is considered to have a much higher degree of loyalty and reliability. With 190,000 active personnel, the Corps for its size fields very few helicopters at around half a dozen, and while initial speculation that it could be the recipient of the Su-35s was likely never viable, the corps could likely integrate attack helicopters much more easily. It notably previously deployed Su-25 ground attack jets, before these were donated to Iraq for counterinsurgency operations. An aircraft such as the Mi-28 could be ideal for the Guard Corps due to its responsibility for both overseas operations and its position at the forefront of any potential counterinsurgency operations domestically. With the Corps being consistently prioritised for funding for equipment modernisation, the likelihood that new attack helicopters will be acquired could grow considerably if it is seen as necessary for the Revolutionary Guard’s missions rather than those of the regular Army.