The Russo-Iranian Military Coalition in Syria may be Deepening
The Russo-Iranian military coalition in Syria may be deeper than many have believed. The Iranian armed forces appear to be allowing Russian aircraft to use their military airfields in support of combat operations over Syria. This development is remarkable: Iran is one of the most virulently anti-colonial regimes in the world, and yet it is allowing a former colonial power that had partitioned Persia with Great Britain to place military forces on its territory. But Russia likely requires access to an airfield in Iran to support its military operations in the region, and Tehran seems willing to permit it. Contrary to Western analysts’ arguments that Russia is marginalizing Iran in Syria or even driving it out, Russia appears to be more dependent militarily on maintaining a strong relationship with Tehran than has been previously thought.
Iranian fighters have been escorting Russian bombers as they transit Iranian airspace for some time, as can be seen in a video filmed and released by the Russian air force (reported by The Aviationist). Military aviation specialist Babak Taghvaei reports (as cited by The Aviationist) that Russian Tu-95MS Bear, Tu-160 Blackjack, and Tu-22M Backfire bombers have flown a southwesterly path through Iranian airspace since late November on their way to missions against rebel and Islamic state forces in Syria, flying southwest of Tehran, passing Esfahan and Ahvaz, and crossing over the Iraqi border north of Basra. Satellite imagery recently obtained and analyzed by AllSource Analysis now shows that advanced Russian combat aircraft have used Iranian Air Force bases to stage on the way to or from bombing runs in Syria at least once.
One such combat aircraft, a Russian Su-34 “Fullback” strike fighter, was seen on the main parking apron of Shahid Nojeh Air Base in the northwestern province of Hamedan, Iran on November 23, 2015 and remained there for at least two days. An Il-76 “Candid” transport aircraft arrived likely in the afternoon or evening of November 24. Both had departed by December 5, according to AllSource analysts.
The Su-34 is an advanced fighter-bomber with a range of 2,500 miles (with a full weapons load) that is capable of aerial refueling. It is reportedly capable of attacking four targets simultaneously and can fire air-to-air missiles as well as air-to-ground ordnance. Its cockpit is armored to allow it to engage in close air support operations like the U.S. A-10. It supposedly has a greatly reduced radar cross-section, making it harder to detect and track, and advanced radar and avionics.
The timing of the aircraft sightings suggest that the Su-34 may have developed mechanical trouble, landed at Shahid Nojeh Air Base, waited for the Il-76 to arrive with maintenance equipment and/or personnel, and promptly left. AllSource analysts have not seen indications that Russian aircraft have used this air base at other times, although Taghvaee’s graphic shows two Russian Il-78 tanker aircraft on stand-by based out of Hamedan (without offering any evidence for that claim, however).
Shahid Nojeh Air Base, however, offers certain advantages if Tehran’s aim is to conceal the active support it is giving to Russian military operations from its own territory. Although Iran has many airfields on the flight-path of Russian planes
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