Iran’s new underground air base seen preparing to host advanced Russian fighter jets

New York Times analysis finds several signs that Eagle 44 base will be home for Su-35 fleet, expected to arrive later this year in major boost to Iranian Air Force

A poster inside a newly unveiled Iranian underground Air Force base. The central silhouette appears to be that of the Sukhoi Su-35 jet, which Iran does not yet have as of February 2023. (Iranian Army via Fars)
A poster inside a newly unveiled Iranian underground Air Force base. The central silhouette appears to be that of the Sukhoi Su-35 jet, which Iran does not yet have as of February 2023. (Iranian Army via Fars)

An analysis of images from a newly revealed underground air force base in Iran named “Eagle 44” reveals that the site is likely being prepared to host advanced Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Iran earlier this month unveiled what it said was its first underground air force base, with the head of the Islamic Republic’s military saying the site would be among those used to launch a response to any potential strikes by Israel or others.

The report by the Times, which looked at images released by Iran along with satellite images of the site, found several clues that Tehran was preparing the base for the Su-35 fighter jets.

Iran said last year it was looking to buy the jets as it dramatically stepped up defense coordination with Moscow in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Iran has become a major weapons supplier to Russia, particularly of its killer drones.

It is believed Russia is willing to supply Tehran with 24 of the fighters after a deal to supply the same number to Egypt fell through.

The first clue that Eagle 44 was being prepared as a base for the Su-35s was seen in the promotional video and photos released by Iran. In them, a poster is seen with the silhouettes of fighter jets. All the silhouettes are of aircraft currently in the Iranian air force, except for one, which is of the Sukhoi, the Times said.

In addition, satellite imagery of the site shows that the Iranians have built a full-scale mock-up of the Su-35, which was likely being used to ensure the base could accommodate the larger dimensions of the Russian jet.

“These are likely being used in assessing clearances for maneuvering the aircraft throughout the underground facility and could suggest they’ll be based here,” Chris Biggers, a former US government imagery analyst told the Times.

A Russian Sukhoi SU-35 performs during the Dubai Air Show, United Arab Emirates, Monday, November 13, 2017. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

The report said work on the base was likely ongoing to prepare for the arrival of the jets, noting that while satellite images indicate the current entrance tunnel is too small for the Su-35, work was ongoing on a second, larger tunnel.

Iran unveiled the base with much fanfare.

“Any attack on Iran from our enemies, including Israel, will see a response from our many air force bases including Eagle 44,” Iran’s armed forces’ Chief of Staff Mohammad Bagheri told IRNA at the time.

Pilots pose with an aircraft at a new underground Iranian air force base in this picture released February 7, 2023. (Iranian Army)

IRNA said the Eagle 44 site was one of Iran’s most important military facilities, and would be home to fighter jets equipped with long-range cruise missiles.

The location of the base was not disclosed as part of attempts by Iran to put key military and nuclear facilities out of the way of potential strikes.

However, the New York Times report said the base was in a mountainous area in Iran’s southern Hormozgan Province, only 100 miles north of the key Strait of Hormuz.

It said work on the site has been going on for a decade, but it was possible that it was only recently decided to use it at an air base, noting that runway construction was new.

Analysts also told the Times that building such a sophisticated base to house Iran’s current fleet of outdated fighters made little sense and so it was likely designed for the new Su-35s. The report said the arrival of the jets, expected later this year, would be “the country’s most significant upgrade to its aging fighter jet fleet in decades.”

Iran has in recent years been moving much of its critical military infrastructure underground.

Israel is suspected of launching a series of attacks on Iran, including an assault on its underground Natanz nuclear facility that damaged its centrifuges.

Last year, Iran’s army unveiled details about an underground base in the Zagros mountain range, where it said some 100 drones were stored. Iran has also shown off similar tunnels in the past, which serve as storage areas for missiles and drones.

Last month, there was a significant drone attack on a key Iranian defense facility in the city of Isfahan. The site hit in the strike was reportedly a weapons production facility for Iran’s killer Shahed-136 drones.

The attack was one of a number widely attributed to Israel, which has a policy of not commenting on such operations.

Iran threatened retaliation over Israel’s reported involvement in the Isfahan attack, warning Jerusalem “not to play with fire.”

In his previous term, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered numerous strikes on Iranian targets in Syria and operations on Iranian soil. He has been open about his intention to oppose Tehran’s nuclear aspirations at any cost, as Israel generally views an Iranian nuclear bomb as an existential threat.

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