The curious case of Iran’s new helo
This week Iran unveiled a new helicopter purported to have been designed and manufactured domestically. According to one Iranian press agency, the new Saba-248 helicopter demonstrates the country’s ‘great headways in manufacturing a broad range of indigenous equipment’.
But as with many Iranian equipment projects, all is not what it seems.
Looking at photographs of the Saba-248, there are clear indications that the basis of helicopter is actually the Italian-made Agusta 109. In fact, dig a little deeper, as our full story shows, and you’ll discover that the Iranian Helicopter Support and Renewal Company (IHSRC) actually used a crashed A109E for the ‘prototype’ Saba.
It’s unclear how much of the A109E has been reverse-engineered and whether Iran can transition the helicopter into full-rate production. Other attempts at indigenous military helicopters – including the Shahed 278 and 285 – don’t appear to have come to much, particularly as many have relied on recycled parts from older helicopters.
It might not be the sexiest part of manufacturing, but supply chain is hugely important.
Years of sanctions means the Iranians don’t have access to OEM spares and its own attempts at parts manufacturing will be limited. As a result, they have become particularly adept at ‘making do’ and somehow keeping aircraft flying that should probably have been retired and scrapped decades ago.
There are numerous examples of US-built aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat, supplied to the Shah of Iran before the 1979 revolution, that somehow still manage to get airborne. The aviation wing of the army, for example, operates a geriatric fleet of CH-47Cs and AH-1Js.
Of course, this is not the first time that Iran has publicly ‘reverse-engineered’ a crashed western design. Last year, the authorities unveiled a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that appeared to be based on the US RQ-170 ‘Sentinel’ stealth drone that crashed in the country in 2011. Whether it’s a real capability, or just another cheap knock-off, is anyone’s guess.
The lesson to all this? Take any announcement of a ‘new’ Iranian aircraft with a pinch of salt.