Three gray shadows in an echelon formation passed over an airport in the middle of an arid desert. One by one, the shapes banked left and turned to land on the runway. They were three Su-25 attack jets belonging to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, the IRGC-AF.
Tehran had dispatched the Russian-made, twin-engine attackers to Al Rashid air base near Baghdad, in order to help Iraq’s beleaguered army fight invading Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The three-aircraft combat group deployed from Shiraz in Iran. The Su-25s stopped over at Iran’s Ilam airport and Imam Ali air base in Iraq before reaching Al Rashid.
Ground crews welcomed the heavily-armored, straight-wing jets and their pilots with a Shia ritual. The Iraqis sacrificed three sheep, washed their hands in the animals’ blood and stamped bloody hand-prints on the jets’ noses.
The bloody hand is the mark of one of the most eminent Shia heroes—Abul Fadhl Al Abbas. He lost his hands at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680. His shrine is in Karbala, a few hundred meters from Imam Hussein Shrine. Shias believe in heaven he has wings instead of hands.
The IRGC-AF is mainly responsible for the production, maintenance and operation of Iran’s strategic missiles. Its secondary role is to support politically loyal ground forces. The IRGCA-AF possesses a handful of Su-25s along with EMB-312 propeller-driven light attack planes and numerous drones.
The Iranians got their first batch of Su-25s during the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm, when Iraqi jets fled to Iran to escape bombardment. In January 1991, six single-seat Su-25Ks flew from Al Rashid air base in Iraq to Hamadan in the west of Iran.
Twelve years later, Iran signed a contract for a dozen two-seat Su-25UBKs from Russia, but ultimately received only three. Tehran also negotiated to acquire from Russia three SU-25UBTs—the naval-support version of the jet—but it’s not clear whether they ever arrived. Iran bought four additional Su-25Ks through a third party, probably Belarus, in 2011 or 2012.
The only loss of an Iranian Su-25 occurred on June 17, 1997, when a single-seat Su-25K crashed into the mountains near Kashan. Pilot Col. Zahak Nezhad died instantly. Investigators blamed bad weather and pilot error.
Of the between 12 and 15 IRGC-AF Su-25s, only six are combat-capable at any given time. The Corps organizes the jets into two quick-reaction teams and rotates them through various Iranian airfields. EMB-312s and An-74 transports support the QRTs.
Iran has upgraded its Su-25s to make them compatible with precision-guided weapons. The upgrades were the result of painful experiences four years ago. In September 2010, the IRGC launched an operation to clear Kurdish Pejak militia from Mount Jasousan in northwest Iran.
The operation included a special operations raid with heavy air support. But the IRGC-AF failed to come through. The Su-25s lacked the sensors and weapons to target small and stealthy rebel bands. In close encounters, they couldn’t differentiate Iranian troops from the Kurds. And to get close enough to use unguided rockets and bombs, the Su-25s had to fly within range of Pejak defenses.
Several Su-25s sustained light damage from shoulder-launched missiles and anti-aircraft artillery. The Pejak retreated under the IRGC’s heavy artillery fire, but the Saberin commandos—Iran‘s’ version of the U.S. Delta Force—alone lost more than 40 soldiers killed plus many more injured.
Several high-ranking Iranian commanders also died in the 2010 clashes, notably among them Brig. Gen. Jannesari, commander of the 15th Khordad Missile and Artillery Group in Isfahan and Gen. Asemi, commander of the Ali Ibn Abi Taleb intelligence unit, one of most powerful and secretive branches of the IRGC. The intel unit is responsible for protecting several Iranian nuclear facilities as well as the country’s main religious sites.
The first practical measure the IRGC-AF took in response was to synchronize the Su-25s with drones. Iranian drones would spot targets with their electro-optical sensors and then mark them with lasers. That way the Su-25s could easily lock on and fire laser-guided missiles.
Pilots first practiced the tactic during the Great Prophet 7 war game in 2011. An IRGC-AF Su-25 successfully fired two laser-guided S-8 rocket at a mock target illuminated by a Mohajer drone.
Meanwhile engineers readied a new electronics suit and new weapons for the Su-25s. The new hardware included modern navigation and communication systems and multi-function displays inside the cockpit. With these upgrades, the Su-25s can carry under-slung camera pods and also receive live streaming footage from drones.
In February 2014, the Iranian Ministry of Defense introduced the Bina laser guided-missile for use on IRGC-AF Su-25s. Bina is a combination of an AGM-65 optically-guided missile and a GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, both of which the U.S. sold to Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Bina missile has a 20-kilometer range and packs a 50-kilogram warhead.
Bina is more powerful than America’s Hellfire anti-tank missile but less powerful than Russia’s Kh-29. Bina is ideal for targeting unarmored targets such as buildings, trucks and infantry.
Other new Su-25 weapons debuted at a major arms expo in March this year, including Ra’ad dual precision bombs with laser and GPS guidance. Ra’ad comes in 500-, 1,000- and 2,000-pound models.
Iran doesn’t have access to military-grade GPS. Instead, Iranian troops use a domestic land-based positioning system called Hoda that enhances the precision and security of commercial GPS.
One new munition that appeared at the expo is meant for Shahed armed drones but could also be compatible with the Su-25. The Sadid is actually a family of seven small precision bombs and missiles sharing some components.
The smallest member of the family is Sadid-L with a five-kilogram warhead and a range of four kilometers. The largest is Sadid Model-636, a guided bomb with a 20-kilogram high-explosive warhead.
On June 25, the first reports emerged about the transportation of ground support elements for the IRGC-AF contingent at Al Rashid. The New York Times also reported the arrival of jamming and communications gear along with seven tons of ammunition and spare parts.
To complement the Iranian Su-25s, Baghdad has acquired 12 second-hand Su-25s from Russia. But the ex-Russian jets have yet to pass flight-safety checks. Meanwhile, each of the Iranian Su-25s has been flying up to five combat sorties every day against ISIS militants.
But the IRGC-AF planes are operating without their usual drone helpers. Instead, Iranian pilot get target coordinates from human sources on the ground. The aerial attacks focus on high-value targets such as ISIS commanders, ammo and vehicle depots and captured fuel and supply dumps.
The first Iranian combat operation occurred on the afternoon of July 2 and struck a gathering of militants in Anbar province. On July 7, a two-ship formation attacked an ISIS parade in Tal Afar, reportedly dropping cluster munitions. Scores of rebels died.
Early in the morning on July 8, an Su-25 attacked the Al Ayaziyah residential area in Tal Afar. The strike targeted a house believed to be the home of a rebel leader in the city.
In coming weeks, the former Russian Su-25s could join the battle. They could help relieve the Iranian planes on the daily sorties, allowing the Iranians to hold back for quick-reaction strikes on time-sensitive targets.
In any event, with so few functional attack planes in its arsenal, Iraq will continue to rely on ground troops to do most of the fighting in the grinding war with ISIS.