A Short History of Iran’s (Other) Fake Warplane

2003's ‘Shafagh’ was a wooden mock-up

In February 2013, the Iranian government unveiled what it claimed was a new, indigenous stealth fighter—the Qaher 313. It turned out to be an embarrassing fake.

And not the first one. More than a decade ago, Tehran tried to sell the world on another artificial warplane—Shafagh, meaning “twilight.” Only recently have we been able to definitely prove that it was a wooden mock-up.

The Shafagh show began in 2003 at Malek Ashtar University, a military research institution. A woman named Shafigheh Bagherin appeared in a televised interview with state media. She was the head designer of what the Iranians claimed was a new, lightweight jet fighter.

Shafagh. Iranian state media capture via author

The plane appeared to be authentic. It had the same Zvezda ejection seat as the MiG-29 plus what looked like functional integrated avionics and an airframe that should boast reasonable aerodynamics.

British military trade journal Jane’s and Aviation Week in the U.S. were fast to pick up the story. Western experts speculated that Shafagh was a derivative of a Russian plane design meant to match the American F-35 stealth fighter.

Shafagh had a Russian RD-33 engine and a Russian Phazotron Zhuk radar, they assumed. The new Iranian plane would be available as a two-seat trainer and a single-seat fighter-bomber. Shafagh would be subsonic but still a potent combatant—and a more-than-adequate replacement for Tehran’s old, U.S.-made F-5s.

A Shafagh model. Photo via author

The Iranian government went to great lengths to maintain the illusion. It published images of Shafagh in wind-tunnel testing and displayed scale models of the plane carrying different Russian munitions. A radio-controlled scale model briefly flew, powered by a miniature turbojet engine.

Shafagh was the star of the Kish airshow. Politicians congratulated Bagherin on her achievement and promised a first flight of the new fighter in early 2008.

It never happened because Shafagh was never a real airplane. We just didn’t know that for certain until 10 years later.

Poster featuring Shafagh mock-up. Photo via author

In 2013, Iranian Internet users published pictures of a poster they spotted at defense expo. The poster described the efforts of personnel working in the mock-up shop at Malek Ashtar University—and included images of what appeared to be the full-scale, wooden Shafagh model under construction.

The Qaher 313 roll-out was so unconvincing that Tehran promptly fired the executive in charge. The Shafagh show was far more professional and believable.

But that doesn’t mean Shafagh was a real warplane.

War is Boring heavily revised this story shortly after publication on April 7 in order to correct a major editing error. Iran is not rebuilding Shafagh for another round of displays, as we originally asserted. That was an error of translation and not the author’s fault. Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.