Although faced by UN sanctions prohibiting the purchase of any military equipment for the Iranian armed forces, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy has managed to procure various seaplanes. These have been acquired under the cover of using them for tourist purposes in the Persian Gulf. It has now been confirmed that the IRGC Navy fleet also includes amphibians of Russian design.
Among the types that have been selected for procurement are the LA-8C and LA-8L amphibians from the Russian manufacturer AeroVolga. These are powered by a pair of LOM Praha M-337C-1V01 and Lycoming IO-540B4B5 engines respectively.
Since its establishment in 1985, the IRGC Navy has employed an irregular warfare doctrine against large naval vessels. Related weapons include fast boats, light helicopters and aircraft intended to be used against the US Navy and its allies in the Persian Gulf.
In the mid-1990s, Iranian Aircraft Manufacturing Industries (IAMI) was contracted by the IRGC Navy to study ground-effect vehicles (ekranoplans). This resulted in development of the Bavar-1 and Bavar-2 light ekranoplans based on the design features of the old Soviet-era ESKA-1. This experimental ekranopan was designed by the Moscow Institute of Civil Aviation Engineers (MIIGA) in the 1960 and first flown in 1973.
The Bavar-2 was test-flown in 2009 and mass production began the same year, resulting in construction of almost 20 examples by 2012. The Bavar-2 was found lacking for irregular maritime combat, but marked the beginning of an ambitious programme for the IRGC. Its commanders planned to form a fleet of armed and unarmed ekranoplans in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz by 2020.
Technological limitations and sanctions were two deterrent factors that meant IAMI was unable to progress beyond the Bavar-2. This forced the IRGC to seek help from the civil aviation sector of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL). The aim was to develop larger seaplanes able to carry passengers and cargo between Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf.
Fajr Ashian Aircraft Maintenance and Overhaul Company (FarsCo) responded to the request and in 2011 its CEO together with the general manager of the Iranian Aviation Industries Organization (IAIO), Dr Manuchehr Manteghi, started their search by looking for suitable seaplanes and amphibians to meet the needs of the IRGC.
In summer 2012, one prototype LA-8C and one prototype LA-8L were sent Iran to be tested in hot and humid conditions. Again, it was said the amphibians were to be used for tourist purposes. The LA-8L, equipped with American Lycoming engines, suffered an accident in the port of Anzali, south of the Caspian Sea. However, the LA-8C successfully flew to the Persian Gulf where it was successfully tested.
AeroVolga had established a company to carry out sales and marketing of the aircraft in the Middle East, Asia and other parts of the world. In 2011 the company began negotiating with IAIO and FarsCo to sell the aircraft to Iran, unaware that the IRGC planned to use them for military purposes.
Five LA-8Cs were ordered for the IRGC Navy and delivered between 2013 and 2015. It has been claimed that at least six more examples were ordered but there is no evidence of this. LA-8Cs were first seen in IRGC Navy service via satellite images dated December 20, 2015 when one example was parked outside one of two aircraft hangars belonging to the IRGC Navy Aviation at its main base at Bandar Abbas.
Amphibians officially unveiled
Procurement and use of the LA-8Cs by the IRGC Navy Aviation was kept secret until December 13, 2017, when Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, and Ali Fadavi, commander of the IRGC Navy, attended Bandar Abbas for an official ceremony inducting the aircraft into service. Four of the five examples were shown. The fifth is currently out of service after suffering an accident. Since 2015 the IRGC Navy has used the LA-8C for VIP transport, observation and liaison between its bases in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz.
IRGC Navy Aviation currently has a fleet of almost 100 UAVs, 13 helicopters as well as 32 other aircraft types, including amphibians and ekranoplans, ultralights and light seaplanes. Procurement of the LA-8Cs and use of the Bavar-2 is just the beginning of ambitious plans to form a fleet of 60 amphibians and ekranoplans in the Persian Gulf within the next ten years. Babak Taghvaee
Look out for a full Force Report on the IRGC Navy Aviation in a future issue of AirForces Monthly.