Iran Claims It Turned a Sidewinder Into a "New" Anti-Tank Missile
The “Azarakhsh” missile could offer a cost-effective way to improve certain capabilities as Iran continues to face sanctions and economic upheaval.
Iran’s powerful quasi-military Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, has unveiled what it says is a “new” combination anti-tank and short-range surface-to-air missile. From the available images and video, it appears the weapon is actually just a modified AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile, which could be an indicator of local ingenuity, a lack of readily available alternatives, or a little of both.
IRGC Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari and IRGC Ground Force Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour got a look at the missile, along with other new military developments, at a ceremony on Feb. 28, 2018. The weapon is somewhat confusing called the “Azarakhsh” – a Farsi word that variously translates to lightning, thunder, and thunderbolt – which is also the name the Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Company gave to a locally produced modification to or derivative of the Northrop F-5E Tiger II jet combat aircraft. The IRGC says it will arm helicopters and ground-based launchers with the weapon, but did not offer any additional information.
It’s not clear how much of the Azarakhsh is new and how much the IRGC may have taken from older AIM-9 missiles, either directly or in basic design. Though the missile on display had a new, bare metal front end, which typically houses the seeker and warhead, the control fins appeared to be identical to those on the AIM-9J, N, and P models. The rest of the weapon looks entirely the same as a standard Sidewinder.
The IRGC claims the Azarakhsh missile weighs about 155 pounds, is approximately 122 inches long, has a top speed of 1,230 miles per hour, and a range of just greater than 6 miles. If those figures are accurate, this would make it lighter, but longer than the AIM-9J, N, or P models, as well slower and with a shorter range than those air-to-air weapons.
The IRGC said the missile had a "thermographic" guidance method, which could mean an infrared homing system similar to the original Sidewinder or a seeker more akin to weapons such as the AGM-65 Maverick missile, whereby the operator can see through the camera in the weapon's nose to find and lock on to the target. Either way, the seeker does appear to be different from the one on the original missile, which would make sense since those systems would be nearly 40 years old at the very youngest and could easily be unsupportable if they're still functional at all.
Depending on the exact sensitivity of the system, it could have some capability to engage relatively low- or slow-flying aircraft, such as helicopters or small drones, and vehicles that give off a suitable heat signature. The IRGC did not claim the missile had any additional features to defeat defensive systems, such as decoy flares or directional infrared countermeasures, that could make it more capable in an anti-aircraft role.
The Iranian news reports did not give any information about the Azarakhsh's warhead, but it's difficult to develop a system that is equally effective against both armored and aerial targets. It is possible that the weapon has a dual purpose configuration that includes a shaped charge to defeat armor with a surrounding layer that breaks apart into deadly shrapnel in order to damage less well protected targets, but this would still be most useful in an air-to-ground role.
But adapting the AIM-9 to these roles could still offer a cost-effective means of adding some sort of additional anti-armor and air defense capabilities to IRGC helicopters and ground units. According to data the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has collected, Iran purchased or otherwise received nearly 2,000 AIM-9J and P models from the United States between 1971 and 1979.
In 1979, a revolt unseated the regime of U.S. ally Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and revolutionaries took dozens of American hostage, prompting the United States to sever ties with the country. It’s not clear how many of those missiles Iran may have already expended, either during the course of the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988 or in training exercises before, during, or after that conflict.
Using the Sidewinder as the basis for Azarakhsh makes a certain amount of sense, though. The Sidewinder has long presented a platform that could be adapted to more roles than just air-to-air combat.
In the 1960s, the U.S. Navy explored turning the missiles into air-to-ground weapons, resulting in the AGM-87A Focus. Then, in the 1980s, the service modified a number of AIM-9C semi-active radar-homing variants into AIM-122A Sidearm anti-radiation missiles to destroy enemy radars on the ground.
The U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps also adopted another variant, the MIM-72, as a short-range surface-to-air missile. Those two services employed the weapons on towed and tracked launchers.
With regards to the air-launched Sidearms, the U.S. Marine Corps AH-1 Super Cobra helicopters became the primary launch platforms, which may have in part informed the Iranian decision to modify their own AIM-9s. Iran still operates a number of AH-1J International Cobras that the country acquired during the reign of the Shah. It has since upgraded these attack helicopters and refers to them as the Panha 2091 or Toufan.
It’s not clear how much a weapon like Azarakhsh might expand the capabilities of those helicopters, though. They can already carry an Iranian copy of the American TOW wire-guided anti-tank missile, which is, somewhat confusingly, called Toophan. The Misagh-2, a short-range infrared anti-aircraft missile that Iran may have derived in part from the Chinese QW-1 Vanguard man-portable, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, is reportedly another armament option. It might, however, offer an important added capability for other helicopter types, including the Mi-17, for which Iran has more limited guided weapon options.
Iran does not appear to necessarily be wanting in ground-based short-range air defense systems, either, though the American MIM-72 may have again provided some inspiration for turning old Sidewinders into short-range surface-to-air missiles. In addition to having a number of older types still in limited service, the country has already produced copies of the Chinese HQ-7 radio command guided missile system and has purchased a more limited number of more modern Russian Tor surface-to-air and Pantsir-S1 combination surface-to-air and gun systems.
But for Iran, which remains subject to significant international sanctions and continues to have limited options when it comes to purchasing more advanced weapons abroad, it might be worth the effort to be able to squeeze any additional capability out of a stockpile of aging missiles, especially ones that are becoming steadily less useful in their original role. Older models of Sidewinders would also be a relatively easy design to reverse engineer and being producing domestically.
It wouldn’t be the first time Iran has looked to repurpose older American made designs into new roles or reverse engineer them for local production. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians turned both RIM-66 Standard and MIM-23 HAWK missiles surface-to-air missiles into air-to-air weapons. More recently, the country has also built ground-launched derivatives of the RIM-66, called the Sayyad-2.
In addition, given recent economic turmoil in the country, which contributed to an unprecedented outpouring popular discontent with the ruling regime around the beginning of 2018, Azarakhsh might also offer a much more cost effective option compared to buying or otherwise building all new anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. It might also offer a system that the country can more readily put into serial production.
It’s also entirely possible that the IRGC ceremony was simply a show for propaganda purposes. Iran routinely puts weapons on display that it boasts are both all-new and entirely a product of domestic research and development, which are instead obvious copies of foreign weapons.
These displays are meant to communicate that Iran continues to advance its military capabilities in spite of sanctions and threats from opponents, such as the United States and Israel. Observers often note that many of the more “high-tech” weapons the country presents to the public are clearly of dubious capability, if it appears that they work at all.
That being said, Iran has proven it has a defense industrial base that can produce at least dated but workable weapon systems. Though it does not appear to have any of the advanced features of its American predecessor, the Iranians did build a flyable drone based on the shape of the RQ-170 Sentinel stealthy unmanned aircraft and send it into Israeli territory from a base in Syria, touching off a brief skirmish in which Syrian air defenders managed to shoot down an Israeli Air Force F-16I multi-role fighter jet.
It remains to be seen whether the Azarakhsh turns out to be anything other than a prop, but as the United States has already shown itself, the Sidewinder can definitely serve as a good starting point for new missiles.
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