Images Show Hidden Clues About Iran’s Significant Fighter Jet Upgrade

On Feb. 7, Iran unveiled a new underground Air Force base called “Eagle 44” in a slick propaganda video. On the wall was a clue hiding in plain sight: a poster with silhouettes of fighter jets. One in particular stands out. It’s situated front and center, and is in the shape of a state-of-the-art military jet that Iran currently doesn’t possess, but which officials claim Russia is in the process of selling to them.

Satellite imagery analysis also reveals what appears to be an at-scale model — what experts call a mockup — of the same type of fighter jet at the base. Combined, the details suggest two things about Iran’s plans: Officials are optimistic about the delivery of these planes, and they could be intending to use this air base to house some of them.

Since September 2022, Iranian military and political officials have publicly touted the supposed purchase of 24 Su-35s, one of Russia’s most advanced combat aircraft.

Russia has not confirmed the deal, but the details in the video and satellite images suggest Iran is at least making preparations for the arrival of the planes, which officials maintain will happen later this year. It would be the country’s most significant upgrade to its aging fighter jet fleet in decades.

The other aircraft mockup is one that is currently in the Iranian Air Force’s inventory. “The Su-35 is not, but is expected in early 2023 as Tehran continues to support Russia’s war in Ukraine,“ Mr. Biggers added.

Both of the likely mockups appeared at their current location in January while construction on the base was still ongoing. They have not been moved since, according to satellite images reviewed by The Times. The air base may still be undergoing some upgrades in preparation for the possible delivery. An existing tunnel entrance seen in the video footage may be too narrow to accommodate the wide Russian jets. But The Times’s analysis of the site shows that another tunnel, perhaps for larger planes, is still under construction.

How The Times uses visuals to investigate the news. Our Visual Investigations team is made up of more than a dozen journalists who combine digital sleuthing and forensic analysis with traditional reporting to deconstruct news events. They have uncovered important details about drone strikes, police shootings and the Capitol riot.

The Iranian propaganda video assessed by The Times and Mr. Biggers was part of a trove of promotional releases about Eagle 44 put out by Iran last week. It shows high-ranking military officials taking a tour of the base.

The silhouette of the main fighter aircraft seen on a poster in the video matches a so-called flanker series jet — a term describing modern Russian fighter jets such as the Su-35, said Mr. Biggers. Iran currently does not have aircraft from that series. The other silhouettes pictured are of existing — and older — planes in Iran’s inventory.

A Times review of historical satellite imagery of the area found that activity started in August 2013, with excavation work on the underground facility visible by early 2014. As of February 2023, five tunnel entrances leading to the underground shelters were visible.

It is unclear if the intended use of the underground facility has always been for an Air Force base. Construction of the airstrip didn’t begin until May 2021, almost eight years after the first observed activity at the site, and is ongoing.

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