The bulk of international attention toward the Islamic Republic’s military advances focuses on its dual-use nuclear work and its ballistic missile development. Its military industries, however, are more varied. While Iranian small boats have grown more aggressive in the Persian Gulf over the past few years, with large-scale public drilling of swarming attacks against large ships, and while Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles are an increasingly frequent presence in the Gulf, growing Iranian helicopter capabilities suggest that Iranian capabilities may soon improve in a number of fields.
The Iranian military has long emphasized the importance of helicopters. The Shah purchased helicopters from both Bell and Grumman, and soon claimed the largest helicopter fleet in the Middle East. Bell Helicopter built a plant in Isfahan, employing several thousand Americans. The Americans may have left after the Islamic Revolution, but, as the article excerpted here shows, Iran’s post-revolutionary armed forces embraced the helicopter during the Iran-Iraq War.
Iran’s current claim to be mass producing helicopters is directly linked to its pre-revolutionary relationship with Bell. In 2006 Bell filed suit in the Washington, DC, Circuit Court because of the production of knock-offs of several of its helicopters in plants owned by Panha, whose chairman is quoted in the excerpted article. The court dismissed that suit in 2013 because of Bell’s failure to show that it had incurred harm by Panha’s infringement (and Bell would have difficulty collecting against the Islamic Republic at any rate). Meanwhile, Panha has only increased production since.
Iranian authorities believe they need a large helicopter fleet. Iran is a large country, equivalent in size to Alaska. Historically, its topography—high mountains, long deserts, malarial swamps, and only one navigable river—has been its best defense. Such features, however, can make Iran a logistical nightmare. The bulk of its population lives in cities on interior planes, and so most large airports are also in the interior of the country. Winter snows often make northern highways impassable. Revitalizing its helicopter capabilities should help Iran move men and supplies to areas along its 3380-mile-long borders, or its 1500-mile-long coastline when necessary for aid and assistance, or for furthering military activities.
The Iranian Navy has also equipped helicopters with sonar and antisubmarine weapons. While the Persian Gulf is shallow and difficult for submarine maneuver, such antisubmarine capability might help Iran defend its southern coast and might encourage it to increase its presence in the Sea of Oman outside the Strait of Hormuz. The Ministry of Defense separately announced plans to improve helicopter-borne rockets and missiles.
Given Iran’s past proliferation activities, as well as its involvement in terrorism, the mass production of Iranian helicopters might also lead to their use further afield, should Iran be able to transport them to countries like North Korea or Lebanon, where they might fall into the hands of Hezbollah. While Iranian helicopters are as yet no match for their Western counterparts, Iranian engineers and those working for Iran’s military industries have demonstrated that no one should assume that Iran’s technology deficit is unable to narrow significantly the present gap.