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Axis of Exploitation: How Iran and Russia Circumvents Restrictions

Iran concluded a deal to acquire the failed Egyptian Sukhoi Su-35SE 'Flanker E' order from Russia in exchange for various types of stand-off weapons developed by Iran. The aircraft are scheduled for delivery to the IRIAF from March 2023. Iran will most probably retain the original Egyptian color scheme until the system induction process is completed.

The Inconspicuous Event:

On December 23, 2022, four Airbus A340–300 passenger aircraft departed from Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB), South Africa, to Uzbekistan as per flight plans filed. The aircraft were kept in storage in South Africa since 2019 after its retirement from Turkish Airlines service in that year. According to the original flight plans, the final destination was noted as Uzbekistan, but when the aircraft arrived in Omani air space, all four aircraft deviated from its original flight paths into Iranian air space and disappeared from radar tracking. The following day Iranian civil aviation authorities confirmed that the aircraft landed safely without incident at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKA), and that search and rescue was not required. On December 29, 2022, the four A340–300 aircraft were visually confirmed by means of Airbus Sentinel-2 satellite imagery to be parked at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The primary concern about this event is that Iranian authorities (especially the IRGC), were aware of the final destination being Iran instead of Uzbekistan, and that this event was in fact a well executed deception operation to circumvent U.S. imposed sanctions relating to Iran’s ongoing nuclear program which is rapidly approaching weaponization maturity. So, why the secrecy? This operation started when the four Airbus A340–300 aircraft were purchased by a Hong Kong registered company, Avro Global Limited (CR No. 1916910), from Turkish Airlines and then registered in Guernsey before being flown to a 'neutral' country (but an ally to the Iranian regime). The SARS-CoV2 pandemic that followed caused for some delays in transfer of the aircraft, but the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, served as a perfect distraction for the aircraft to be transferred to Iran with little [U.S.] scrutiny since all eyes were focussed on Russia at the time. In December 2022, just before the departure of the aircraft from South Africa, all four aircraft were re-registered in Burkina Faso with temporary registration codes XT-AKA, XT-AKB, XT-AKK, and XT-ALM. Since the arrival of the four aircraft in Iran, the general assumption (based on speculative social media reporting), was that the aircraft will serve as passenger aircraft in service of either Iran Air or Mahan Airlines. Consequently, this event failed to draw much attention simply because it involves four 'old' Airbus A340–300 airliners with airframes nearly 30 years old, and generally considered outdated for economic use in major airlines from a competitive passenger transport perspective. Although this may be true in the normal world not subject to economic sanctions, a rising nuclear power Iran with a proven belligerent foreign policy does not fall into the category of normal which necessitates finer scrutiny of this event.

Airbus A340–300 parked at Johannesburg O.R. Tambo International Airport prior to its flight to Iran. This specific aircraft, XT-AKK, is one of the aircraft now in Iran. All four aircraft are retired from Turkish Airlines service, still resembling the basic Turkish Airlines red and white color scheme.

The often overlooked characteristic of the Airbus A340–300 model specifically is its second life utilization as a freighter with unique design features not necessarily relevant to any other A340 models. However, upon deeper analysis this event exposed a much greater strategy at play which highlights how Iran exploits the concept of Civil-Military Fusion (CMF) to enhance its strategic military capabilities, most of its strategic capabilities disguised as civilian and/or commercial operations.

What is Civil-Military Fusion (CMF)?

Civil-Military Fusion basically implies exploiting 'dual-use' technologies, concepts, systems, etc, suitable for both military- and civil/commercial utilization. With reference to Iran's Civil-Military Fusion strategy, this basically involves the expansion of Iranian strategic military capabilities through the weaponization of existing civilian technologies of acceptable specifications to meet military requirements. Some of the advantages of CMF is that it offers rapid scalability in terms of military capabilities at relatively lower costs compared to traditional military specification technologies, less restrictive acquisition with reduced foreign scrutiny, and various opportunities to disguise military operations within the civilian domain to enable plausible deniability. However, what the war in Ukraine illustrated well was the effectiveness of cheap improvised weapon systems in large quantities when utilized against [expensive] advanced military hardware through appropriate innovation which enables reduced operational costs, and reduced dependence on complex logistics and supporting industrialization. Compared to Iran, Russia is still lagging behind in terms of extracting maximum benefits from exploiting civilian domain systems, although the Russian strategy is much different to that of Iran. The Kremlin's strategy is much more diversified, with various Civil-Military Fusion programs operated [independently] in silos by Russian intelligence services (front companies engaged in actual commercial contracting activities, but utilized as an enabler of intelligence operations supporting Russian government objectives), the Russian Armed Forces (strategic military assets disguised as civilian commercial operations), and the Presidency (pseudo-private military companies, and strategic military capabilities belonging to the Supreme High Command).

The militarized Airbus A340–300 idea:

On September 30, 2020, the outgoing Chief of the South African Air Force (CSAAF), Lt Genl Fabian Zimpande Msimang (now retired), wrote within his farewell speech a confirmation note that the SAAF had signed off on the purchase of three retired South African Airways (SAA) Airbus A340 aircraft. This confirmation was never verbalized during his speech, but only written in his notes (as recovered from the trash after the event). Now, based on confidential insider information, the SAAF was considering the procurement of the available Airbus A340–300 model aircraft owned by the national carrier, South African Airways (SAA), which was grounded and undergoing business rescue at the time. The reason why the outgoing CSAAF withheld confirmation pertaining the planned acquisition was not disclosed, although political interference from influential members in government is suspected. However, this did raise the question why the SAAF considered the acquisition of Airbus A340–300’s, and how feasible the Airbus A340–300 is as a military multi-mission platform. A few days following the event, both the business rescue practitioners of SAA and the SANDF (South African National Defence Force) denied any plans to procure the three A340–300’s originally expected to be MSN 643, 646, and 651 due to their low hours and pristine state of serviceability.

However, before we continue with the South African needs assessment, we also need to understand the present Iranian situation for better context from a military point of view and how it relates to the original requirements assessment by the South African Air Force. As we explore this subject in greater depth, we identify a greater possible [unforeseen] effect resulting from this ‘minor’ perceived Airbus A340-300 transfer event between South Africa and Iran, by studying the feasibility and technical simplicity of the conversion and utilizing of the Airbus A340–300 as a low-cost military freighter with modular multi-missions capability. This factor, along with the fact that on January 16, 2023, (about 3 weeks after the arrival of the four A340’s in Tehran), Iranian MP Shahriar Heidari, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, confirmed that the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) will receive a batch of new Sukhoi Su-35SE multi-role fighters from Russia during Q2 2023. These aircraft were originally ordered by the Egyptian Air Force under a deal worth around US$ 18 Billion, but due to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, Egypt failed to take delivery of the aircraft due to international sanctions imposed on Russia. In return, Russia was running out of long-range strike options in Ukraine, and both Iran and Russia are sanctioned in terms of USD payment methods. A solution to both Russia and Iran was Russia trading the new batch of 24 Sukhoi Su-35SE fighters for equal value in return trade of Iranian made combat drones and missile systems in a trade deal valued at around US$ 20 Billion.

Status Update [July 18, 2023]: The Iranian government reaches new heights in its tolerance levels to Russia's failure to deliver the ex-Egyptian Air Force order of 24 Sukhoi Su-35SE models, in addition to a supplementary new-build order for 12 Sukhoi Su-30SME2 two-seat multi-role fighters. A source close to the Commander of the IRIAF, Brigadier-General Hamid Vahedi, stated: "For now, General Staff of the Armed Forces has opposed procurement of Su-35SE multirole fighter jets from Russia as Russian government refuses to transfer technology for production of their parts in Iran and also to provide the knowledge for maintaining the aircraft domestically for the next 30 years." According to Vahedi, Russia only agreed to sell Iran the cancelled Egyptian order without maintenance, weapons systems, and spare parts support. The Russians also refused to provide Su-35SE simulators and an additional order for 12 Sukhoi Su-30ME2 two-seat multi-role fighters. Furthermore, the IRIAF was also not satisfied with the poor level of technical support that other Russian arms customers were experiencing after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, especially looking at Armenia's experience using Russian aircraft systems, and how it is now restricted in using the weapons systems in response to possible Azerbaijan hostility as a result of poor maintenance, limited technical support, and limited availability of armaments.

Looking at the IRIAF dilemma, this problem is not only unique to Iran, but basically affects all current Russian military sales customers. Western sanctions against Russia has had a major negative effect on Russia's arms industry, especially relating to advanced sub-systems which depends on sustainable availability of Western components, especially microprocessors. The reality facing Russia now is that it has lost the technical ability to manufacture advanced systems domestically as a result of corruption and neglect spanning over decades within the Ministry of Defence. The other concern that Russia has regarding Iran is that Russia does not want to repeat the mistakes it made with China. Iran has been quite persistent in establishing its own domestic [reverse engineered] production capabilities, and Russia can't risk losing its last technologies to a competing 'ally' which could challenge Russia's current status in Syria. In summary, Russia still considers Iran's growing regional influence as a threat to its own regional interests in terms of oil and gas expansionism, although Russia is currently dependent on military supplies sourced from Iran. Iran, on the other hand, also distrusts Russia for various reasons, but wishes to extract whatever it can from Russia as the opportunity presents itself through Russia's desperation. Even though Russia and Iran operate as 'allies' in Syria, Iran would prefer that Russia not to be present in Syria which it considers an exclusive domain of Iran for exploitation.

Sukhoi Su-35SE 'Flanker E' serial 9210 in Egyptian Air Force color scheme undergoing pre-delivery flight testing. As a result of Egypt failing to take delivery of the aircraft, Iran will become the new owner soon.

The addition of the new Sukhoi Su-35SE multi-role fighters to the IRIAF fleet will drastically modernize its existing obsolete capabilities (newest fighters in service with the IRIAF are Mikoyan Mig-29 fighters delivered to Iran by Russia during the early 1990's). However, to fully enable the true capabilities of these platforms and their respective weapons systems, the IRIAF requires modern multi-mission (IFR, ESM / ELINT, AEW&C, Freight) platforms to effectively support these systems over greater distances reaching as far as current Iranian military operations in Syria. So, what options do the Iranians have, and how can the recent Airbus A340–300 procurement be the solution? To understand this, we need to look at the South African Air Force needs assessment justifying the [planned, but abandoned] procurement of the Airbus A340–300.

Summary of the SAAF needs assessment:

In sub-Sahara Africa, the South African Air Force (SAAF) remains the most advanced air force in terms of heritage, infrastructure, technical expertise and capabilities. During 2005, the SAAF became one of the launch customers of the Airbus A400M tactical / strategic airlifters when it ordered eight aircraft with an option to purchase an additional eight. However, due to unforeseen program delays and drastic changes in ZAR / EUR foreign exchange rates resulting from declining economic conditions in South Africa, the cost of eventual procurement of the Airbus A400M became too expensive for the SAAF, and the orders were subsequently cancelled. These orders originally intended replacing the Lockheed C-130BZ aircraft in service with the SAAF, some units having entered SAAF service in 1963. Another factor which contributed to the cancellation of the A400M purchase was the additional costs of replacing the existing airborne cargo and paratrooper delivery systems which were not suitable for use with the Airbus A400M platform at the time. There were no alternative replacement options due to government-imposed cuts on defense spending resulting in the SAAF having to contract expensive strategic airlift services from foreign private service providers operating Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft (which includes the use of Russian Aerospace Forces connected assets in 2023). As the SAAF budget gradually eroded due to constant government spending cuts and increasing USD inflation, the SAAF Lockheed C-130BZ fleet serviceability gradually declined to the point where the SAAF was struggling to support its foreign peacekeeping responsibilities in Africa. Also, the SAAF lost its long-range multi-mission capability relating to In-Flight Refueling (IFR) to enable extended operational range of its SAAB Gripen JAS-39 C/D multi-role fighter fleet, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) / Electronic Warfare (EW), Search and Rescue (SAR), and long-range Troop Transportation and Freight, when it retired five Boeing 707 aircraft equipped for these roles around two decades ago. Initially the Airbus A400 system was intended to replace these capabilities utilizing modular multi-mission systems, but when the A400 sale was cancelled, the SAAF had no back-up contingency due to lack of funds.

A rare photo of one of the SAAF Boeing 707 special missions aircraft equipped with hose-and-drogue In-Flight Refueling system, and IAI Elta 8300 compact modular ESM/ELINT suite (which was publicly disclosed as "Emitter Locating Systems" for security reasons, although not incorrect since the purpose of an "Emitter Locating System" is to geolocate signal emitters such as communications nodes and radar installations/equipment, a major enabler of SEAD missions). This configuration was displayed during the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994.

The 'side cheek' pods containing the IAI Elta 8300 ESM/ELINT sensors are removable, and were attached to the exterior fuselage with special brackets. The whole system was designed to be modular and multi-missions capable, and could be interchanged with minimal technical effort in a short period of time, depending on mission requirements. The interiors were also adapted for rapid interchange between ESM/ELINT systems interface, high-density airliner configuration (troop transport), cargo operations, or VIP configuration. The SAAF intended to regain this lost capability by procuring the Airbus A340-300's and retrofitting the sensors suites it still has available in storage since removal from the decommissioned Boeing 707's, the last operational aircraft retired on October 03, 2007. However, taking into consideration the depth of [covert] relations between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the current ruling political party in South Africa, concerns arise relating to the integrity of these systems, and whether Iran had any access to these classified systems for 'evaluation' purposes (to enable reverse engineering R&D).

A modernized Royal Saudi Air Force RE-3A, serial 1901, first observed during April 2018 resembling similar ELINT setup as the retired SAAF Boeing 707's. According to Saudi sources, the side cheeks accommodate AEELS (Automatic Electronic Emitter Locating Systems), basically a more powerful version of the IAI Elta 8300 ESM/ELINT system supplied to the KSA via the United States. Within the context of current geopolitical events in the Middle East, the KSA considers Iran as its greatest regional adversary, and why Iran would be interested in acquiring similar technology.

The main consideration relating to the SAAF situation was what alternative best options were available to circumvent budget constraints limiting the procurement of costly MOTS (Military-Off-The-Shelf) multi-mission platforms. The solution was looking at suitable COTS (Commercial-Off-The-Shelf) systems availability with the ability to be adapted through minimal technical modifications to expand on required military capabilities. Now, the idea of militarizing a proven commercial product is not new, and the US Air Force operates a large fleet of various militarized versions of proven commercial systems, predominantly based on the various Boeing commercial passenger aircraft. The benefit of this approach ensures regular availability of spare parts and technical support through a global network of partners, which also drastically reduces fixed- and variable operating costs. Also, the majority air freight supporting the US global war on terror (GWOT) were delivered on freighters converted from retired passenger aircraft (mostly Boeing 747 freighters). So, the idea of purchasing a proven passenger aircraft and converting it into a modular freighter to support military multi-mission requirements made absolute sense form a cost-saving vs capabilities gained perspective, and the SAAF still had the institutional knowledge gained from operating multi-missions adapted Boeing 707 aircraft over a period of two decades until retirement of the last platform in 2007. However, with the addition of converted passenger aircraft to perform long-range multi-missions / freighter roles in support of military operations, these systems do not replace either tactical- or strategic airlift capabilities, but rather supplements these functions. For the SAAF, the original plan was to decrease the burden of long-range mission support on the more costly Lockheed C-130BZ fleet, while enabling expanded mission capabilities and reduced operational costs while supporting its foreign deployment missions. These aircraft would also enable the development of more efficient hub-and-spoke logistical supply capability which the SAAF does not have at present. From a platform suitability perspective, the Airbus A340–300 was the most common of all A340 models with 218 delivered globally. The South African aircraft were still in excellent condition having been maintained and operated by professional domestic based maintenance crews at O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, and there was sufficient availability of spare parts and trained crews already in country (the majority of pilots being ex-SAAF as added bonus). So, setting aside any arguments relating to what would be considered the ideal military tactical / strategic airlifter, the main reason why the SAAF required the Airbus A340–300 was to enable the following special missions capabilities:

  • Strategic transport (Troop deployments, Supply missions, Antarctic support missions);

  • In-flight Refueling;


  • Long-range Maritime Patrol / Search & Rescue (Southern Ocean reaching Marion Island/Antarctica);

  • Humanitarian Support Missions; and

  • VIP Transport.

Also, present and future reality has highlighted the fact that the probability of the SAAF procuring ‘ideal’ strategic airlifters of military specification comparative to the Airbus A400M / Boeing C17 is extremely unlikely from a budget perspective, why this option was actually the only feasible option available to the SAAF to regain some lost capabilities within the medium term compared to limited-to-none (within class) capabilities at present.

In terms of military utilization of the Airbus A340, the French Armée de l’Air was the first military operator of the A340–200 in 2006 (ex-Austrian Airlines aircraft), currently used as strategic transport (troop deployments and supply missions), and VIP Transport. The Royal Air Force (RAF) utilizes the twin engine Airbus A330, a platform based on the A340 airframe design, but with greater limitations in terms of conversion for dedicated freight operations due to different landing gear layout and design. Looking at technical feasibility, the Airbus A340–300 is at present the most suitable civilian aircraft for replacing older Boeing 747 Cargo variants from both a CPFH and cargo load / capacity perspective. The majority USFOR-A / NATO ISAF cargo operations in and out of Afghanistan were performed by converted Boeing 747 Freighters, and not Lockheed C-5 Galaxy / Boeing C-17 Globemaster as would be expected mainly due to cost factors. The A340–300 is also by far much more economical to operate than the older Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft contracted by many air forces globally to support long-range supply missions in the absence of appropriate capability. The global pandemic also illustrated the importance of maintaining scalable cargo capacity to remain profitable while subject to restrictive passenger transport conditions. Since the outbreak of the recent global pandemic, the majority airlines faced closure if they failed to adapt to changing operational requirements. Airlines that operated the Airbus A340–300 immediately adapted to the changing business environment by removing all the seats and internal passenger support features from their aircraft and expanding cargo operations by loading palletized cargo in the main deck and lower hold without any structural modifications to ease supply problems caused by global supply network bottlenecks. The Airbus A340 serves this purpose extremely well, especially considering that the A340 was in part designed with a strengthened main deck for this repurposing later during its lifetime (based on lessons learnt from Boeing, looking at how all Boeing 747’s were repurposed through minor conversion to freighters upon reaching the end of economical passenger operations).

The Airbus A340-300 Freighter Conversion:

So, looking at the feasibility of converting the Airbus A340–300 to a strategic freighter, we need to look at the current certified A340 LCF (Low-Cost Freighter) program to appreciate the freighter capabilities of this aircraft. The program specifications for this passenger-to-freighter conversion incorporates the following modifications:

  • Supernumerary Area / Intercom / Emergency Equipment / Lavatory / Galley (aft of the flight deck);

  • Cargo loading system (CLS);

  • Forward Cargo Door CLS modification;

  • Installation of a Forward Lift (to lift cargo pallets from lower hold to main deck, easing ground handling operations in terms of aircraft loading);

  • Installation of an Aft Lift (similar to forward lift);

  • Aft Cargo Door CLS modification;

  • Main deck lights;

  • Systems Integration: ECS / Smoke Detection / Water & Waste / Drain / Oxygen / Fire Extinguisher System;

  • Interior Configuration: Main deck Class ‘E’ / Doors Deactivation / Window Plugs Optional;

  • 9G Barrier / Smoke Barrier / Access Door;

  • Removal of unnecessary pax operations items (where required).

‘Deep Stripping’ of structures, systems and materials are not required in the low-cost freighter configuration, and aircraft can be converted rapidly to fulfill various other missions utilizing modular special missions equipment. The LCF conversion requires only 6 weeks, and costs similar to a large cabin reconfiguration at around USD 6.5 - 8 million, which is only a small fraction compared to the initial capitalization of purchasing a new aircraft. Add these costs to a low acquisition cost of a relatively modern and low-hours passenger aircraft deemed unsuitable for cost-effective low-volume passenger operations selling between USD 8 - 25 million each (depending on current condition and remaining hours), and we have an aircraft that can add various advanced modular multi-mission capabilities to air forces operating on tight budgets, or subject to restrictive procurement options. Additionally, the Airbus A340–300 enjoys an abundance of spare parts availability for at least the next 20 years mainly caused by the premature retirement by passenger services operators seeking more economical solutions to improve profitability. However, various freight services operators have started to grow their Airbus A340 freighter fleets as older Boeing 747 freighters are retired.

Airbus A340-300 Performance Considerations:

The Airbus A340–300 LCF offers a 65 tonnes gross payload (including Tare) at sea level, allowing for a 5,400 nm range. In other words, the main deck of the standard A340–300 provides for 44 tonnes load capacity without floor strengthening, and 41,4 tonnes existing load capacity in the lower hold. However, OEM compartment specifications limits the total aircraft to 65 tonnes, which nullifies the requirement for any costly main deck strengthening modifications. In addition to these performance figures, this conversion requires no external special loading equipment (something of relative importance looking at palletized freight handling into lesser equipped airfields especially common in austere environments), and it also does not require the installation of a main deck freight door for cargo not exceeding the 1.63 meters height limit of the lower fuselage cargo doors. For larger cargo requirements, a ‘plug safe’ main deck cargo door (MDCD) can be installed offering optimized dimensions (2.5 meters high x 3.5 meters wide) to save on MDCD structure weight, reduced maintenance and improved safety. The A340–300 also does not require a redesigned nose gear as required on Airbus A330 freighter conversions. Basically, this modification allows for the transporting of around 52 tonnes of palletized cargo which meets NATO military requirements (compared to the Ilyushin Il-76 palletized load capacity of 40 tonnes, and a maximum of 19 tonnes for the Lockheed C-130B with greatly reduced range compared to the Airbus A340–300).

In terms of redundancy, the Airbus A340–300 was designed for extended operations over water, hence the four engines design, which also improves hot-and-high performance compared to twins. A very important design feature of the Airbus A340–300 is that it is equipped with a centerline landing gear not found on most comparable commercial wide-body aircraft. The presence of the centerline landing gear drastically reduces stress under heavy loads to the under-wing mounted main landing gear, which is one of the primary considerations when converting passenger aircraft to freighters.

Exposed centerline landing gear on a German Air Force Airbus A340-300. This is a common desired feature by cargo operators when considering freighter conversions from passenger aircraft, a feature not available on many passenger aircraft.

What is Iran's current relationship with South Africa?

The relationship of cooperation between the current ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran dates back around 40 years when the ANC was still functioning as a revolutionary force resisting the then [Western aligned] South African government with the support from the Soviet Union. This relationship was expanded when the ANC assumed majority-rule government in 1994, when Iran expanded its diplomatic mission to South Africa. Within the current geopolitical environment we need to understand that Iran maintains friendly relations with the South African ANC government just as the South African ANC government is a political ally of Russia (via the African National Congress’ political alliance with Yedinaya Rossiya / United Russia, the dominant political party endorsing Vladimir Putin in Russia). Russia and Iran are also military allies. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran currently experiences embargoes and economic sanctions similar to what the Republic of South Africa experienced during the period 1962–1993. During the economic sanctions era of South Africa, the country achieved major industrial milestones, including the development of a self-sustaining domestic armaments development capability, to include a matured nuclear weapons program (which was disassembled prior to government power transition in 1994 as a result of Western pressure to deter ANC access to the technology fearing possible abuse). When the ANC took over political power of the South African government in 1994, Iran was one of the first countries to approach their ANC allies to gain access to pre-1994 South African arms technologies inherited from the previous political dispensation, especially technical details pertaining the discontinued nuclear weapons program. This was a major concern to the West, with British intelligence services taking notice of Iranian attempts to influence former President Thabo Mbeki (during his Presidential term), to share South African military technology (predominantly relating to nuclear research, rocket and missiles technology, and other armaments development). The militarization program involving the five Boeing 707 passenger aircraft is also a product of the South African sanctions era with technical assistance from Israel. At present, post-1994 South Africa is an important strategic partner to Iran, especially in terms of enabling sanctions circumvention around current US sanctions. Looking at South Africa's domestic defense capabilities, we know (based on at least the past 10 years' exposed incidents and track record), that South African defense technology is compromised as a result of both the SANDF (South African National Defence Force), and the state-owned arms developer DENEL being infiltrated by ruling-party politically connected rogue actors acting within the interests of personal financial gain. The ANC government enabled this by enforcing strict Affirmative Action policies in DENEL which basically ensured the appointment of ANC loyalists in the majority leadership positions, which eventually allowed these members to gain access to classified armaments data packs, including armaments data dating back to the pre-1994 political dispensation. The SANDF is also compromised by its command structures being staffed by a majority ANC loyalists who are veterans of the pre-1994 uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress (ANC) who maintained a technical working relationship with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) of Iran since the Cold War. In 2017, South Africa's DENEL (with approval from the South African ANC-led government), attempted to sell its advanced Denel Dynamics Umkhonto (VLS) surface-to-air missile system to Iran in a deal worth US$ 118 million at the time. This deal was blocked by the UN Security Council, but questions remain about how much of the missile system's technology contributed (via irregular means) to Iran's 'domestically developed' Nawab VLS surface-to-air missile system now in service with the IRGC Navy. The same concerns exist in relation to the Denel Dynamics ZT-6 Mokopa anti-tank/anti-ship missile system, and how much of that technology contributed to the similar specifications Qaim-114 laser-guided anti-tank/anti-ship missile system inducted by both the IRGC Aerospace Force and IRGC Navy.

Looking at the recent transfer of Airbus A340–300 aircraft from South Africa to Iran, the point of this article is to highlight that in light of the current changing geopolitical landscape, low importance perceived events could have major effects if the greater details pertaining end-user requirements and strategy are not fully understood. Although the main purpose of the four A340–300 aircraft now in Iran may only be to add capacity to either Mahan Airlines or Iran Air commercial passenger operations (as per open source information 'speculation'), the next event might not be for commercial purposes. However, we can already assess the likelihood of these newly acquired A340-300's being destined for military use by the IRIAF and/or IRGC just by looking at Iran's current activities involving Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) programs.

Examples of Iranian Civil-Military Fusion Activities:

1. Air Freight:

Since the February 24, 2022, Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have observed a rapid increase in air freight operations originating in Iran for final destination delivery of military aid to Russia in support of its war in Ukraine. One of the original aircraft identified as an IRIAF asset directly involved with military aid flights between Iran and Russia, is a Boeing 747-200F with civil registration number EP-SIH operating under the civilian air services markings of Saha Airlines. However, the civil registration for this aircraft is not a reliable tracking mechanism for this specific aircraft's operator history because it has changed its registration serials often since its delivery to the Iranian Air Force (pre-revolution) in 1977, although it has remained in service of the IRIAF (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force) since delivery until present with military serial 5-8113.

Therefore, what we conclude from this summary is that Boeing 747-200F, MSN 21486, has been in Iranian military service since new delivery in 1977. The most recent [observed] operation of EP-SIH was on February 18, 2023, operating a [military aid] cargo flight from Iran to Moscow, Russia, on behalf of the IRIAF.

The activities relating to Saha Airlines EP-SIH also exposed other Iranian flagged 'civilian' aircraft utilized to support Russia with armaments deliveries originating from Iran. A total of 69 civil registered military aid flights were observed operating between Iran and Russia over the review period February 24 to November 03, 2022. The other IRIAF aircraft disguised as civilian operated freighters include:

The most recent photo of IRIAF Boeing 747-200F, EP-SIH (with Saha Airlines markings removed), flying in formation with IRIAF RF-4E's during the Artesh Day parade on April 18, 2023.

Additional observations made during the period March 23 to November 03, 2022, involving Iranian (IRIAF) military aid flights to Russia include:

  • One (1) flight originated from Macau, PRC (EP-FAA, July 21, 2022)

  • One (1) flight originated from New Delhi, India (EP-FAA, September 03, 2022)

  • Six (6) flights originated from Yerevan, Armenia (EP-ICD, July 30 - Sep 11, 2022)

Summary of IRIAF military aid flights to Russia during the period March 23 - November 03, 2022.

Reaching the 1-year anniversary since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Iran (IRIAF) has delivered not less than 4,000 tons of military aid using the four civilian registered aircraft which is becoming more difficult to maintain due to lack of spares and increasing operating costs. The only modernization option the IRIAF has to replace these four aging aircraft, is the four Airbus A340-300 platforms now in Iran. What this simple flight tracking exercise also exposed was how the IRIAF utilizes civilian airliners converted to freighter configuration to support its foreign missions while operating under the disguise of 'civilian' air service operators as a means of enabling plausible deniability. However, air freight also has its limitations, why Iran also operates a fleet of maritime vessels resembling commercial cargo vessels to deliver larger volumes of heavier military hardware.

2. Sea Freight:

The most recent examples of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) linked vessels were observed in the Caspian Sea delivering arms to Russia:

Shilan (ex Arkanoor-2), IMO 8727848. This vessel is owned by Admiral Shipping Company which is controlled by Ali Shamkani, the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. Shamkani founded ASC after retiring as the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Navy with the rank of Admiral in 2012.

Vanda (ex Arkanoor-3), IMO 8832083. This vessel is owned by Admiral Shipping Company which is controlled by Ali Shamkani, the Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.

Bosco Gilan, IMO 9188752. This vessel is owned by Bonyad Shipping Company, a front company for Bonyad e-Mostazafan Foundation which is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Other Iranian flagged vessels include:

  • Soren, IMO 9202493

  • Kasra-1, IMO 8888848

3. Naval Forces:

During the first week of March 2023, Iranian State media revealed various new IRGC Navy projects involving the conversion of retired commercial container vessels to multi-mission naval systems equipped with modular combat modules.

3-1 Improvised Combat Vessels:

Offshore Fast-Attack Boat Support Vessel: Shahid Mahdavi (110-3)

The Shahid Mahdavi, IRGC Navy pennant number 110-3, started life as a commercial container vessel named Sarvin, IMO 9209348, built in 2000 with a nominal capacity of 3,300 TEU.

Shahid Mahdavi, 110-3 (ex Sarvin, IMO 9209348)

According to various sources, the Shahid Mahdavi is intended to serve as a forward operations base for a fleet of new generation fast 'swarm attack' craft capable of speeds between 75 - 90 knots, equipped with heavy machine guns, rockets, loitering munitions, and anti-ship missiles. The vessel's warfare capability is divided into three systems, namely:

i. Self-Defense: The vessel is equipped with various 23 mm anti-aircraft guns, and at least four (4) Ghadir anti-ship missiles (ASM) with a range of between 200 - 300 km. Additional modular [containerized] surface-to-air missile systems can be added to the vessel with little technical difficulty other than the loading of the standard ISO containerized system, locking it into position, and connecting to the vessel power supply and sensors interface.

ii. Stand-off Weapons (SOW): The IRGC developed a multi-domain containerized standoff attack capability in the form of the Fateh-Class short-range ballistic missile system. The Fateh-Class SRBM weighs around 3,450 kg with a 500 kg warhead, and a range of 210 km (standard) to 400 km (with boosters). The warhead options are either high-explosive, chemical, or sub-munitions, with possible nuclear capability. Since this system is modular and built into a standard 40ft ISO container, the number of systems can be adapted to mission requirements (especially since the vessel's deck retains its original container locks.

iii. Fast-Attack / Intercept: The fast-attack / intercept capability is the primary mission of this vessel which consists of a forward deployable new-generation of [76] fast attack craft compliment summarized as follows:

  • Air-Defense Boat (AESA Radar + Short-Range IR VLS Surface-to-Air Missiles x4): 1

  • Missile Interceptor Boat (Medium-Range Laser Guided x2): 6 (2 / assault group)

  • Missile Assault Boat (Short-Range Laser Guided x4): 6 (2 / assault group)

  • Rocket Assault Boat (Unguided x11): 21 (7 / assault group)

  • Torpedo Boats (Multiple Launch x2): 15 (5 / assault group)

  • Gun Boats (Surface Assault / Air Defense - MANPADS): 21 (7 / assault group)

  • Suicide Drone/UAV Boat (Ababil-2 loitering munition x1): 2

  • Explosives Boat (Unmanned): 1

  • Loitering Munitions Boat (x2 Ababil-2 drones): 3 (1 / assault group)

The Iranian strategy to counter more capable NATO combat vessels (especially destroyers and aircraft carriers), was to develop a large fleet of around 3,000 high-performance speed boats armed with a mix of different weapons systems. These speed boats were also developed based on non-military designs, the most favored being the British designed Bladerunner high-speed leisure craft capable of achieving speeds of 70 - 90 knots.

These boats are generally organized into three (3) swarm assault groups to enable three waves of multi-capability attacks against an adversary maritime target with the primary objectives to (1) saturate the target's defensive capabilities following multi-domain high-intensity attacks launched from the air, land, and sea, and (2) neutralize and destroy as many surface- and air adversary assets possible. The total fire power of the 76 fast attack / intercept boats capability alone is summarized as follows (representing the full compliment of fast-attack boats allocated to the Shahid Mahdavi):

  • Torpedoes: < 30

  • Missiles, Medium-Range Laser Guided: < 12

  • Missiles, Short-Range Laser Guided (Qaim-114 mmW): < 24

  • Missiles, Surface-to-Air, Short-Range IR (Nawab): > 4

  • Missiles, Anti-Ship (Ghadir): < 88 (aboard Shahid Mahdavi)

  • Rockets, Unguided: < 231

  • Heavy Machine Gun, 14.5 mm: < 75

  • MANPADS (Misagh-2): < 42

  • Loitering Munitions, Short-Range (Meraj-521): > 24

  • Loitering Munitions, Medium-Range (Ababil-2 anti-ship): > 2

  • Loitering Munitions, Long-Range (Shahed-136) < 60 (aboard Shahid Mahdavi)

  • Radar, AESA: < 1

  • Helicopters (Mil Mi-8): < 2 (aboard Shahid Mahdavi)

According to the IRGC, much progress has been made in terms of integration of systems through a secure network connected to a domestically produced radar network. In addition to this, ECM / EW capabilities should also be factored in, although little information exists regarding such capabilities on the Shahid Mahdavi.

Offshore UAV Carrier: Shahid Bagheri (No pennant number allocated)

The Shahid Bagheri, IRGC Navy pennant number unknown, started life as a commercial container vessel named Perarin (sister ship to the Sarvin), IMO 9209350, built in 2000 with a nominal capacity of 3,280 TEU. As on the date of this article, the vessel is still undergoing conversion.

Shahid Bagheri in dry-dock undergoing refit and modernization at ISOICO shipyard, location 27.053771, 55.979837

Shahid Bagheri (ex Perarin, IMO 9209350)

Leaked images dated May 16, 2023, indicating the current progress on Shahed Bagheri, and specifically the ski-ramp built on its deck.

The Shahid Bagheri is a near exact copy of the Shahid Mahdavi, the only difference being that the 240 meter Shahid Bagheri is purpose built with an angular flight deck for the launching and recovery of armed/unarmed medium-range long-endurance (MALE) UAVs of unspecified type, as well as helicopters of various type (ASW, Special Operations / Special Missions, Trooping, Attack Helicopters). When completed, the IRGC Navy will in fact have a functional (although basic) aircraft carrier capable of operating with minimal restrictions in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf / Arabian Gulf. However, this vessel is designed to support the heavier armed Shahid Mahdavi's fast-attack boats from the rear due to the absence of the following design characteristics commonly found on purpose built warships:

  • Ship-wide fire suppression system

  • Armored bulkheads and water-tight doors

  • Double hull

  • High maneuverability and higher cruising speeds

  • Reduced radar signature

Up to this point, the weaponization of civilian specification hardware has become a specialty for Iran, why all its actions should be scrutinized with greater depth of understanding to determine the IRGC's strategic motives. Although most of these 'innovations' are dismissed as not being 'as effective' compared to Western combat systems, Iran has compensated for such shortcomings by applying an irregular 'guerilla' warfare doctrine which does create further complications for traditional Western combat systems designed to counter mostly conventional threats. Up until now Iran has expanded its strategic capabilities to the point where it should be taken more seriously.

3-2 Improvised Tactics:

Being familiar with Iran's added capabilities enabled through the weaponization of commercial hardware, we can now analyze how Iran's military forces intent to deploy these capabilities. Firstly, what constitutes Iran's military forces? Iran has a somewhat different defense organization in that the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces actually constitutes three separate armed forces working independently from another, but under centralized command of the Supreme Leader of the islamic Revolution as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic via the Military Office of the Supreme Leader as follows:

i. Regular Armed Forces: The regular armed forces of Iran, namely the Islamic Republic of Iran Army (Artesh), is responsible for developing and maintaining the regime's conventional warfare capabilities. These forces include:

  • Islamic Republic of Iran Army Ground Forces

  • Islamic Republic of Iran Air Defense Force

  • Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force

  • Islamic Republic of Iran Navy

ii. Irregular Armed Forces: The irregular armed forces of Iran, namely the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC/Sepah), is responsible for developing and maintaining the regime's irregular (unconventional) warfare capabilities. These forces include:

  • Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces (NEZSA)

  • Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force

  • Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy

  • Quds Force

  • Basij Resistance Force

iii. Paramilitary Forces: General Command of the Law Enforcement (Police) which acts as a paramilitary reserve force to engage in mainly insurgency operations against occupying forces during times of war.

The component of the Islamic Republic of Iran Armed Forces which is the most specialized in terms of the weaponized adaptation of commercial and civil/leisure equipment for use in direct [offensive] military action is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (as illustrated earlier). The following video illustrates how the IRGC Navy envisions the execution of a fast-attack boat swarm attack against an enemy [Western] naval vessel:

Combined arms exercise Millennium Challenge 2002 including all combat arms of the Iranian Armed Forces.

What we can derive from this Iranian IRGC Navy 'show of force' exercise illustrated in this video are the following:

1. The fast-attack boat swarm attacks are only a component of a larger plan of attack involving multi-domain capabilities, including long-range land based anti-ship missile systems;

2. Swarm attacks are executed in three waves, organized in a line-abreast formation while approaching the target at high speed along a direct axis of attack which is also the primary line of fire with maximum fire power to the front towards a single target (presumably the highest value capital ship, such as an aircraft carrier, or a cruiser);

3. Ideal conditions for attack are clear sunny skies, with stable sea conditions. No signs of all-weather capabilities, although it should not be discounted;

Nasr-1 anti-ship / surface-to-surface cruise missile TEL (Transporter Erector Launcher) system in action disguised as a commercial truck. Photo taken on February 11, 2023, during a live-fire demonstration. This demonstration occurred on an island in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, location 27.99395, 50.17452, about 110 km from the Saudi Arabian port city of Ras Al-Khair, a strategic important industrial location being developed to produce Ammonia, Phosphoric- and Sulphuric Acid, and an Alumina refinery and smelter, all of which are essential resources required for the production of fertilizers, refined petroleum products, and explosives. From this island, the Saudi Arabian coastline is within range of the longer-range Ghader (Qadir) anti-ship / surface-to-surface cruise missile version of the Nasr-1, with an operational range of 200 km.

Nasr anti-ship cruise missile system on display disguised as a commercial truck.

4. Target engagements include the use of a diverse range of stand-off weapons, including various types of loitering munitions to concentrate on targeting the most sensitive parts of a combat vessel.

Iranian training exercise utilizing loitering munitions to attack a mock-up of an Israeli Sa'ar 6-Class Corvette. Note the part of the vessel being targeted.

Israeli Sa'ar 6-Class Corvette (used as a model for the development of a target mock-up for training exercises by Iran's armed forces).

A mock-up of an Israeli naval base used by Iran's armed forces for live-firing training. It includes a mock-up of an Israeli Sa'ar 6-Class Corvette.

There is much we can learn from Iran's [diverse] improvised military capabilities, but for operational security reasons we choose not to elaborate too much about it [and its foreseen effectiveness]. The purpose of this discussion is only to create awareness, and for most experienced naval planners in Western navies, the information provided is sufficient to develop effective countermeasures.

Examples of Russian Civil-Military Fusion Activities:

1. Russian Airborne Forces:

The Russian exploitation of 'dual-use' is much more complex than the Iranian activities, but in light of the current Russian war in Ukraine, we shall illustrate the most prominent of 'Civil-Military Fusion' capabilities in use by the Russian system of government to enable its global expansionism agenda. What is important to understand about Russia is the manner in which the Kremlin incorporates a relatively discreet concept of 'lawfare' to circumvent military restrictions by exploiting international laws, treaties and regulations within the civil domain. For the purpose of this explanation, the definition of 'lawfare" is:

"The use of legal systems and institutions to damage or delegitimize an opponent, or to deter anyone's usage of legal right, and/or to exploit legal loopholes to enable greater [non-specified] outcomes not covered by the relevant rules and regulations. "

'Lawfare' basically implies the use, or abuse, of a legal system, the judiciary, the legislature, the law, international treaties, or any related institution as a means of warfare. In other words, 'lawfare' constitutes a means of warfare achieved through the application of the systems of law and its inherent deficiencies to enable own advantage. By nature of its concepts, 'lawfare' is considered a component of irregular warfare. The examples relating to how Russia effectively applies 'lawfare' is extensive, but within the context of the subject of this article, we briefly illustrate how the Russian armed forces benefit from the following two 'civilian' registered assets, namely:

223rd Flight Unit State Airline, Air Services License #: 239, ICAO Code: CHD

224th Flight Unit State Airline, Air Services License #: 529, ICAO Code: TTF

According to the Russian government, these are 'State Airlines' which operates within the [accepted, not specified] definition of 'Civil Aircraft' as specified within the Chicago Convention (1944), and therefore Russia claims full international rights and privileges bestowed upon all aircraft operated by these entities as members of the ICAO (United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization), although Russia is not represented within any of the three groups which form the Council of the ICAO. The benefit to Russia having ICAO registered international air services is the protection that its 'civil aircraft', although being military specifications strategic transporters, gain from operating as an 'international air service' by means of its ICAO recognition as an 'airline'. The Chicago Convention (1944) however distinguished between 'civil' and 'state' aircraft for distinction from the relevance of the regulations of the treaty law (which constitutes what is commonly referred to as 'international law' when accepted by the state signatories), but it [probably intentionally] fails to clearly define the distinctions between what is considered 'civil' aircraft vs 'military' aircraft. What the Chicago Convention does define, is the applicability of the Chicago Convention (1944) as follows:

Article 3:

Civil and State Aircraft (a) This convention shall be applicable only to civil aircraft, and shall not be applicable

to State aircraft.

(b) Aircraft used in military, customs, and police services shall be deemed to be State


(c) No state aircraft of a contracting State shall fly over the territory of another State or

land thereon without authorization by special agreement or otherwise, and in

accordance with the terms thereof.

So, as a result of the absence of clear definitions within the Chicago Convention (1944), which legitimizes the authority of the ICAO as the custodian of the rights of 'civil aircraft', both these two Russian 'airlines' conform to the definition of 'civil aircraft' simply because the Russian government says the purpose of these two 'airlines' are to provide 'international air services' by definition of the treaty law, instead of being regarded as 'State aircraft' simply because the applicable treaty law fails to distinguish and define what constitutes definitive characteristics and identifiers of 'State aircraft'. Basically, the Chicago Convention only 'suggests' that an aircraft cannot be, concurrently, a 'civil aircraft' and a 'state aircraft'. Therefore, the Russian military system is enabled with two mechanism disguised as ICAO registered civilian 'airlines' that enjoy international protection as 'civil aircraft' when flying over territories of 'contracting states'. This is the first major exploit by the Russian State to exploit [legal] protective measures applicable to civil aviation while engaged in [covert] military operations utilizing state aircraft registered as civil aircraft.

Ideally (in a perfectly defined world), what constitutes the definition of a 'civil aircraft'? Based on the Chicago Convention (1944), a 'civil aircraft' basically refers to any aircraft NOT "used in military, custom and police services'. However, in the absence of clear legal definitions within the Chicago Conventions (1944), we need to look at alternative international treaty law to find more precise definitions. The Law of Air and Missile Warfare (AMW), although not actually a law as the name implies, but rather a guideline for States summarizing their responsibilities in terms of the various International Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) treaty laws, do attempt to provide better definitions in terms of:

Civil Aircraft: "Any aircraft that is not a military aircraft."

Military Aircraft: "Military aircraft are defined by the [AMW] Manual as any aircraft that is, cumulatively:

(i) operated by the armed forces of a State,

(ii) bearing the military markings of that State,

(iii) commanded by a member of the armed forces, and

(iv) controlled, manned or pre-programmed by a crew subject to regular armed forces discipline.

Aircraft that are military aircraft have the right to exercise belligerent rights, such as the right to attack enemy targets. An aircraft that does not fulfill all of the four stipulations is not a military aircraft and does not therefore have those rights."

Civilian Airline: "Civilian aircraft identifiable as such and engaged in carrying civilian passengers in scheduled or non-scheduled service."

The problem, however, is that clear definition distinguishing military aircraft (unprotected) from civilian aircraft (protected) are not universally binding and enforced, and this is exactly what the Russian state is exploiting to their [strategic military] benefit as follows (as summarized within the AMW):

AMW, R47a: Civilian aircraft, whether enemy or neutral, are civilian objects and thus have protected status;

AMW, R47b: They may only be attacked if they fulfill the criteria of a military objective and do not lose protection merely because they enter an exclusion or no-fly zone;

AMW, R48b, 49: They may, however, be intercepted, inspected or diverted from their chosen course and enemy civil aircraft are liable to be captured as prize;

AMW, R53 – 55: Neutral civil aircraft are liable to capture as prize outside neutral airspace if it is determined that they are carrying contraband or if a number of other circumstances listed in rule 141 of the AMW Manual applies. Whenever an enemy or neutral civilian aircraft is being captured, the safety of the passengers and crew on board must be provided for. Documents and papers relating to the aircraft must be safeguarded. The safety of civilian aircraft in flight in times of armed conflict requires that they file with the relevant Air Traffic Control (ATC) service required flight plans showing information as to registration, destination, passengers, cargo, identification codes and modes (including updates en route). They should not deviate from a designated air traffic service route or flight plan without ATC clearance unless unforeseen circumstances arise, e.g. distress, in which case they should give immediate appropriate notification. They should avoid areas where hazardous military operations are under way and should comply with instructions from military forces if they find themselves in the vicinity of hostilities. Notices to airmen should be issued by belligerent parties disclosing where hazardous military operations that would be hazardous to civil aviation are taking place, listing frequencies which the aircraft crew should constantly monitor, altitude, course and speed restrictions, relevant military radio communications procedures, and possible action by the military forces in the event that the NOTAM is not complied with;

AMW, R59: Civilian airliners are civilian objects and they are entitled to particular care when the precautions in attack are taken. As with any other object normally dedicated to civilian purposes, a civilian airliner, whether in the air or on the ground, is in cases of doubt presumed not to be making an effective contribution to military action and, therefore, it is assumed not to be a military objective;

AMW, R60 – 61: Neutral or enemy civilian airliners should avoid entering exclusion or no-fly zones, but if they do so, they do not lose their protected status. If a civilian airliner is suspected of carrying contraband or otherwise of acting contrary to its status, it is subject to inspection by a belligerent party at an airfield safe and accessible for that type of aircraft;

AMW, R62: Enemy civilian airliners may be taken as prize provided all passengers and crews are safely disembarked and the papers of the aircraft are preserved;

AMW, R63: A civilian airliner that makes an effective contribution to military action may become a military objective;

Basically, the rules (and associated protection) applicable to 'civilian airlines' are much better defined within the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC). The challenge, however, is burden of proof in the event of abuse by a contracting nation (such as Russia), which would require extensive availability of multi-domain surveillance capabilities by an adversary to prove any abuse prior to taking action considered legally acceptable within the rules of armed conflict. This is the second major exploit by Russia. Now that we have a basic understanding about the legal aspects pertaining the use (abuse) of 'civilian airlines' for enabling strategic military capabilities, we need to look at the capital equipment of these 'civilian airlines':

The primary function of 223rd Flight Unit is troop transportation. The purpose of the transport aircraft allocated to the unit is to support excess baggage (personal field equipment) requirements usually associated with troop rotations and deployments.

List of Russian Federation 'state aircraft' currently allocated to the 224th Flight Unit State Airline. The military designation for this unit is '224th Transportation Detachment' within the 61st Air Army, Supreme High Command. This unit is responsible for the deployment of Russia's rapid response airborne forces, and reports directly to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, the President of the Russian Federation (at present Vladimir Putin).

Now that we are aware of the composition of these two 'civil airlines', we can start tracing back Russian military operations to determine when Russia abused the definition of 'civil aircraft' for enabling military operations. One example of how these 'civil airlines' operate as an integrated mechanism without proper distinction within the greater Russian armed forces system was observed during the Russian 'peacekeeping' operation to Kazakhstan when Vladimir Putin deployed Russian airborne forces to Almaty Airport as an intervention force to counter the violent anti-government protests in support of the President of Kazakhstan on January 06, 2022. The primary objective of the Russian operation was to regain control of Almaty Airport from the control of the protesters, which was later considered a rehearsal operation for the eventual [failed] airborne assault on Hostomel Airport in Ukraine seven weeks later when Russia invaded Ukraine, deploying the same Airborne units. The following images were taken on the morning of January 06, 2022, shortly after the Russian Forces 'liberated' Almaty Airport:

This image depicts Ilyushin Il-76MD with 'civil' registration number RA-78762 belonging to 224th Flight Unit State Airline (224th Transportation Detachment). At this point the aircraft was utilized for military purposes, under the control of the Russian Airborne Forces commander, Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov. Note the aircraft paint scheme resembling the exact same paint scheme of the Russian Aerospace Forces Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft parked to the left and right of this aircraft (illustrated in images to follow).

Parked on the apron for offloading to the right of 224th RA-78762 is another Ilyushin Il-76, RF-76572, belonging to the Russian Aerospace Forces.

Russian Aerospace Forces Ilyushin Il-76, RF-76572, offloading military hardware to support the Airborne Forces in operation. Note the GSh-23 tail gunner turret armed with 23 mm heavy machine guns. All of the 70 Ilyushin Il-76 flights into Almaty Airport were equipped with their GSh-23 tail gun turrets in operational configuration. To the right of RF-76572 was Ilyushin Il-76, registration RF-86907.

A close-up image of the GSh-23 tail gun turret on Russian Aerospace Forces Ilyushin Il-76, RF-76553, which was parked to the left of 224th Flight Unit Ilyushin Il-76MD, RA-78762, at Almaty Airport.

Based on the observations of 224th Flight Unit 'State Airline' Ilyushin Il-76MD civil aircraft registration RA-78762, compared to the Russian Aerospace Forces (VVS) Ilyushin Il-76MD's with military 'RF' registrations on January 06, 2022 at Almaty Airport, Kazakhstan, we find the following:

  • RA-78762/224th Flight Unit State Airline was operated by the armed forces of the Russian Federation (the State);

  • RA-78762/224th Flight Unit State Airline was bearing the military markings of the State (it is painted in the exact paint scheme as the Ilyushin Il-76MD's in use by the Russian Aerospace Forces;

  • RA-78762/224thFlight Unit State Airline was commanded by the force commander of this operation, Russian Airborne Forces Colonel-General Andrey Serdyukov;

  • RA-78762/224th Flight Unit State Airline was controlled, manned or pre-programmed by a crew subject to regular armed forces discipline, and more specifically subjects of the 61st Air Army, Supreme High Council, which controls the Russian Airborne Forces.

Therefore, by definition of what is considered a 'military aircraft' in terms of the international Law of Armed Conflict, RA-78762/224th Flight Unit State Airline fits the definition. RA-78762 was not the only 224th Flight Unit State Airline aircraft utilized on that day, but it was the aircraft with the most recorded evidence of its military utilization as a part of the 61st Air Army during that specific operation. The abuse of civilian registered aircraft do not end here, for these same units are utilized to traffic arms between Iran, Russia and the occupied territories of Ukraine during the current conflict in Ukraine.

2. Russian Ministry of Defence Maritime Transport:

Looking at maritime arms trafficking activities, the following 'commercial' maritime vessels owned by the Ministry of Defence via the front company Transmorflot LLC are also identified as common armaments transporters:

  • Port Olya-3, IMO 9481910

  • Musa Jalil, IMO 8846814

  • Amur-2522, IMO 8721480

  • Rybinsk, IMO 9203734

And lastly, Daryadellan LLC, an Iranian/Turkish/Russian shipping company managed by Hadad Yahya Mehdi & Co, operates a fleet of Russian registered vessels on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, one of the positively identified vessels being Amur-2528, IMO 8727850.


Historically, Russia (as a member of SIPRI), contributed much criticism and opposition to international arms transfers which it considered a threat to its own armaments export interests (one of the reasons why SIPRI lost its credibility in terms of international armaments transfer data). Based on the recent track record of Russian and Iranian armaments deliveries, we can deduct that both nations, even though sanctioned with supposedly 'restrictive' sanctions, have found various creative means of circumventing restrictions, and to develop alternative military capabilities. One of these methods include the exploitation of commercial assets and systems operated under the safeguards of various civil laws and treaties to enable strategic military objectives. The concepts illustrated in this article are only simple highlights to create awareness amongst our NATO alliance partners, and it is by no means an exhaustive list of both Russia- and Iran's extensive civil-military fusion activities.

With reference to the original subject of this discussion, we now start to realize that everything that both Iran and Russia does within the current geo-political environment is within their respective interests of meeting strategic military objectives (some of these interests being shared regional interests). This discussion originally started by questioning the reasons why four Airbus A340-300 aircraft suddenly arrived in Iran from South Africa without much concern by Western observers. However, as this investigation unfolded into a rabbit hole exposing an even larger network of covert activities, both Russia and Iran's strategies became clearer. Looking at Iran's purchase of the A340-300 passenger aircraft, if the conversion of commercial passenger aircraft is the only option to expand on military capabilities, then the Airbus A340–300 is the perfect system to enable special missions capabilities by means of the modular-freighter / multi-missions concept with much lower initial capitalization (caused mainly by USD currency exchange restrictions, not lack of financial resources). The recent transfer of retired Airbus A340–300 aircraft to Iran through somewhat devious methods may be perceived as being insignificant, but taking into consideration Iran’s grand strategy (being aligned with the grand strategies of both Russia and China), the more Iran is allowed to expand on its strategic military capabilities, the more difficult it will become to contain expanding Iranian aggression within its [expanding] region of influence which will have a destabilizing effect on global energy markets, especially in the West. As we can derive from Iran's recent activities relating to foreign military aid supplies to Russia in support of its war in Ukraine, these four Airbus A340-300's will most probably be operated with a civilian paint scheme, but in support of Iranian military operations. How sure are we that these A340-300's are most likely designated for military application instead of normal passenger operations? For relatively the same price and probably much less effort, Iran could have procured the more modern Airbus A340-600 model which is more suitable for passenger operations from a capacity perspective than the shorter A340-300. However, the Airbus A340-300 is in greater demand globally by freight operators due to its better suitability for freight/cargo operations compared to the longer A340-600.

To counter the rapidly expanding threats against the West, especially in light of NATO Europe's current poor state of industrial preparedness to effectively support any great power aggression against NATO, the time is now to start taking action against the smaller 'enablers' while there is still time and the means to neutralize exploits that are weaponized by our adversaries. The West needs to stop underestimating Russia and its allies, especially Iran, if it wishes to retain its democratic legacy into the near future.

Update: On May 23, 2023, two Airbus A340's held in storage at Jakarta Airport in Indonesia departed to an undisclosed destination in the Middle East. Upon arrival in Iranian air space, both aircraft declared emergencies and landed safely in Tehran, following the same modus operandi as the four A340's flown from South Africa during December 2022. This totals six Airbus A340's that Iran received during the past 6 months. The two A340's flew from Indonesia to Iran with Mali registration numbers TZ-DTA and TZ-DTC. Mali has never had any A340's on its registry prior to this event.


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