A version of the article below ran in Flight International last week, but due to space constraints we had to cut it down considerably.
US defense experts consulted by Flightglobal are united in their opinion that Iran's recently unveiled Qaher-313 "stealth aircraft" is merely a mock-up designed for domestic propaganda rather than a flying prototype as claimed by that nation.
"I suspect it's for domestic consumption, and then you may be able to influence a few people in the neighborhood," says Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute. "People who are not all that familiar with this kind of stuff might buy into it very easily."
Air power analyst Mark Gunzinger at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments agrees that the aircraft is a mock-up, but notes that the roll-out of the Qaher-313 is indicative of Iran's greater geopolitical ambitions. "It is another indication that Iran is continuing to pursue military capabilities, including WMD [weapons of mass destruction], to support their anti-access strategy," he says.
Nonetheless, Gunzinger is sure the Qaher-313 is nothing more than a mock-up. "Anyone can build a mock up. I will believe it's a real jet when I see it fly," Gunzinger says. "Even if it does make it off the ground, I doubt that it will have stealth characteristics."
Goure agrees. "It looks like a prize in a Cracker Jack's box," he says.
One aerospace engineer with experience on stealth aircraft also says that the Qaher-313 looks like a mock-up. The aircraft's planform alignment, which is crucial for stealth, is questionable, he says. And while the aircraft looks like it uses a blend of faceting with non-compound curves, it may not be intentional. "I would bet the "facets" are really just structural vestiges showing through the OML [outer mold line] of the skin," the engineer says. Additionally, there are problems with the shapes of the inlet and exhaust. "Tons of corner reflectors and other ugliness in these areas," the engineer says. "Not to mention potential aero issues at higher AoAs [angles of attack]."
Aerodynamically, the Qaher-313 is almost certainly subsonic if it is indeed a real design. "Looks like the basic Clark-Y airfoil of the 1930s and very subsonic," the engineer says. "Also, all of the wing join areas look like they were faired with modeling putty." The leading edges of the wing are very rounded and the airfoil is very thick, he says. Those features are "very non-LO [low observable]".
The drooped winglets are something of a mystery. "With twin vertical stabs, there should be plenty of directional stability, all these do--other than look cool-- is create interesting yaw-roll coupling issues with little perceivable benefit," the engineer says. If the control surfaces on the fixed canards are "deflected at all in flight, [they] would create nice big [radar] reflector," he adds.
The surface finish looks like painted fiberglass or Dacron fabric. "Definitely looks like paint instead of an LO [low observable] coating," he says. The aircraft also seems to lack apertures for anything including communications, sensors, access panels, or fuel. There are no weapons bays that are visible.
Moreover, the aircraft is very small, and there does not appear to be space for such hardware in any case. "Clearly, they haven't mastered the scale part of it, it's supposed to be one-to-one, not one-to-two" says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group. "In terms of there being any content, it makes the [Chengdu] J-20 look like the [Lockheed Martin] F-22." Aboulafia says jokingly he can only imagine what the artist's rendition might have looked like. "At least put an engine nozzle on it," he says.
If there is indeed an engine installed or which can be installed, the only likely contender is a reverse engineered version of the General Electric J85 turbojet, most likely without an afterburner. Iran acquired the engine design from versions of the Northrop F-5 that it operates. Variants of the J85 engine have been used in small jet aircraft around the world.
Moving onto the cockpit, "the canopy, aside from lacking any LO or RF [radio frequency] coating, looks like it's made from that same polystyrene they make the ones for plastic model airplanes," the engineer says. The canopy does not appear to have any sort of forward latch mechanism or locking feature around its edges. "Can't believe it would stay on in flight," the engineer notes.
The cockpit appears to be furnished with avionics from the home-built aircraft market. Some of the components seem to include electronic flight information systems display including a Dynon EFIS-D100, a pair of Dynon EFIS-D10As and a VHF Garmin navcom along with other products built by the two companies.
There are a number of countries that have attempted to develop advanced fighter aircraft and have failed, Goure says. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran has the technological wherewithal to build an advanced stealth aircraft, he says. "We're fairly familiar with their technology base for this, they don't have the engine technology, they don't have the materials technology, and they don't have the computer technology."
In order to develop a stealth aircraft, one must possess advanced detection capabilities including powerful radars and algorithms to validate the design. Stealth does not merely encompass the outer mold line of an aircraft, internal bulkhead and other equipment have to be carefully positioned, Goure says. "If you're going to build something like this, you sort of have to have all of the pieces," he says. "You have to have all of the analytical and sensor technologies, it's not good enough to have the aircraft technologies."
Retired US Air Force Lt Gen David Deptula sums up the Qaher-313 in one word: "Laughable."