The Aerospace Forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is established on the basis and uniting of the air, missile and space components of the organization. It is tasked with launching missile attacks on ground, air and naval forces of the enemy as well as their military and economic facilities. The IRGC Aerospace Force also provides a close air support and lift capabilities for ground and naval units and operates an inventory of short and medium range ballistic missiles.
The number of personnel in the Aerospace Force is estimated at 15,000-20,000. The current commander is Brigadier General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh. He has been occupying the post since October 2009.
Similarly, to the Iranian approach towards the Navy, the Iranian Air Force and the IRGC Aerospace Force are separate branches of the military. However, both of them share the facilities throughout the country.
According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, the Aerospace Force maintains a fleet that includes Su-22 Fitters, EMB-312 Tucanos, Y-12s, Dassault Falcon 20s, MFI-17s, IL-76s, and An-74s. In 2014, Iran supplied Iraq with most of the Su-25 Frogfoot and it only maintains just a few of the Russian combat aircraft.
Warplanes of the IRGC Aerospace Force are significantly dated and suffer from the lack of spare parts for a proper maintenance. An strong sanction pressure and the constant lack of resources forced the IRGC Aerospace Force to use an asymmetric approach.
The IRGC operates various unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which it uses to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as strike missions. UAVs are Iran’s most rapidly advancing air capability. Although most Iranian military services employ UAVs, the IRGCAF is the primary operator of their growing fleet.
Iran regularly conducts Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) flights along its border and littoral, including the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. The IRGCAF has also deployed various armed and unarmed UAVs to Syria and Iraq for ISR and strike missions to support counter-ISIS operations and the Syrian government. In 2018, Iran for the first time employed UAVs to conduct long-range, cross-border strike operations, using armed UAVs in concert with ballistic missiles as part of an attack against ISIS in eastern Syria.
The IRGCAF operates the following drones:
- The HESA Ababil: a single-engine multirole tactical unmanned aerial vehicle manufactured by Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company (HESA).The Ababil comes in two main lines, the Ababil-2 and the Ababil-3, of which the former has a number of variants. It is considered a long-range, low-technology drone.
- The Qods Mohajer: a single-engine tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by the Qods Aviation Industry Company in four main variants from the 1980s to the present day. The Mohajer family is primarily used for reconnaissance, and is among the most mature and well-known Iranian UAVs.
- The HESA Karrar: a jet-powered target drone. The Karrar uses a rocket assist system to take off and is recovered by parachute. It is also claimed to be capable of air launch. The Karrar can carry one 500lb Mk 82 general-purpose bomb, with claimed precision guidance, on its centerline hardpoint. Alternatively, it can carry two Nasr-1 anti-ship missiles, two Kowsar anti-ship missiles, or two 250-pound Mk 81 general-purpose bombs on the underwing stations, or (since 2019) a Balaban satellite-guided glide bomb.
- The Shahed 129: it is capable of combat and reconnaissance missions and has an endurance of 24 hours; it is similar in size, shape and role to the American MQ-1 Predator and is widely considered the most capable drone in Iranian service. Originally, the Shahed 129 carried Sadid-1 anti-tank guided missiles, also known as Sadid-361 or Fat’h 362 missiles. Later, this was replaced by the Sadid-345 precision-guided munition.
- The Qods Yasir: a light tactical surveillance and reconnaissance UAV. The Yasir has swept back wings and a large payload bubble under its nose. Unlike the Scaneagle, it has an inverted V-tail and a twin-boom empennage. The Yasir has a single, unidentified, two-bladed propeller engine. It resembles the US Boeing Insitu ScanEagle suspiciously much.
- The Saegheh-2: a turbofan/piston-powered flying wing unmanned combat aerial vehicle. Also known as the Shahed 191, it carries two Sadid-1 missiles internally and lands on retractable landing skids. It has reportedly been used in combat in Syria.
Another pillar of the IRGC Aerospace Force’s power is short and medium-range ballistic missiles. As of January 2020, Iran possessed an array of them.
The liquid-propellant Shahab 3 is the main-stay of Iran’s medium-range ballistic missile force. Iran has modified the Shahab 3, which is based on the North Korean No Dong, to extend its range and effectiveness, with the longest-range variant being able to reach targets at a distance of about 2,000 kilometers.
The Emad 1 variant of the Shahab 3 has the same range with near-precision accuracy. Later variants, such as the Emad 2, were expected to have greater range.
Iran’s liquid-propellant short-range ballistic missiles — the Shahab 1, Shahab 2, and Qiam-1—are based on Scud technology. The Qiam-1 has a range of at least 750 kilometers, and variants of the system have been used as part of Iranian strikes on ISIS in Syria.
Iran’s solid-propellant close- and short-range ballistic missiles primarily consist of the many variants of the Fateh-110 family of missiles. Most of these systems have ranges up to about 300 kilometers, but Iran has unveiled a variant called the Fateh-313 with a 500-kilometer range. Iran has also advertised several variants of these missiles configured with different terminal seeker technologies, including electro-optical and antiradiation homing, which makes them capable of targeting ships. These systems—which include the Khalij Fars, Hormuz 1, and Hormuz 2—reportedly have ranges of about 300 kilometers.
In September 2016, Iran unveiled the new Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missile, a solid-propellant system with a 700-kilometer range. Iran used these missiles in its 2017 and 2018 strikes against ISIS in Syria.
A part of the arsenal is land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs). In 2012, Iran announced the development of its first LACM, called Meshkat. In 2015, Iran displayed what it called the Soumar LACM, a ground-launched system that appears to be based on the Russian air-launched AS-15. Iran claims the Soumar has a 2,000-kilometer range. LACMs can provide Iran with a precision-strike capability up to medium-range ballistic missiles’ ranges that could further complicate missile defenses.
The space technologies development is one more priority of the IRGC Aerospace Force.
Since 2008, Iran has launched multi-stage space launch vehicles (SLVs) that could also aid Iran’s development of longer-range ballistic missiles because SLVs use inherently similar technologies. Iran has conducted multiple launches of the two-stage, liquid-propellant Safir SLV, a mix of successes and failures. It has also launched the larger two-stage, liquid-propellant Simorgh SLV, which is designed to carry satellites higher into orbit and could also serve as a test bed for developing ICBM technologies. The Simorgh could be capable of ICBM ranges if configured as a ballistic missile, according to the US.
On April 22nd, 2020, Iran successfully launched its first ever military satellite with a new Qased space launch vehicle. The Qased is a three-stage rocket, using a Ghadr liquid-fuelled missile as its first stage, a solid propellant Salman motor as its second stage, and an unknown small kick motor as its third stage. There is little novelty in the choice of a Ghadr as the Qased’s first stage: an improved version of the Shahab 3, the liquid-fuel Ghadr is a standard workhorse of the Iranian missile force and has already served as the basis for the Safir rocket in the past.
The successes of the Iranian space program is especially valuable because the country has been for a long time existing in the state of the besieged fortress, and suffering from the sanction pressure and technological blockade. The space program successes in such conditions inspire respect. Even North Korea, which has been successfully developing its ballistic program, has an easier access to technologies than Iran. The North’s public and non-public cooperation with China is an example.
The United States argues that the Iranian space program is just a cover-up for the development of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. It’s an open secret that any state that develops a space program will use the obtained engineer and scientific gap to increase its national defense capability. In own time this was done by the United States, the USSR, China, France and other powers.
The Iranian space program has own features that differ it from others. As in the case of the IRGC Navy and the usage of swarms of drones, the Iranian space program focused on the most cost-effective approaches. This lead to the practical minimization of the employed technologies and the usage the most sophisticated (among accessible) informational models of the management of systems.
It may sound strange but it is possible that Tehran will, in some kind, follow the path of SpaceX copying some of its approaches. SpaceX as a formally commercial structure seeks to minimize its spending and maximize the revenue focusing on reusable technologies and building a network of micro satellites.
Iran also works to minimize its spending and maximize the results, but with even with higher motivation. In its case, the failure of the space program is the matter of the national interests and even the survival of the state. The prospect directions of the development of the Iranian space program is the creation of a large-scale distributed multistatic radar antenna array or global electronic-warfare system based on micro satellites, the creation of own geo-positioning system, or event the deployment of suicide micro satellites.
Another format of the Iranian space program progress is the low-cost asymmetric approach, like the one employed by the Soviet Union when it was forced to compete with the huge-funded space program of the United States. An incredible thing is a usage of a bucket with bolts as an ultimate weapon to damage any sophisticated and costly space system. Additionally, the modern level of technology does not require pricey space systems to deploy on the orbit a strike suicide satellite equipped with a dirty bomb.
The Iranian space program is shaped by two factors – the country’s reasonable desire for the peaceful space exploration and the need to guarantee own interests amid the further militarization of space by the United States, Israel and other countries.