Staff Writer (Updated: 2/17/2015):
Prior to the fall of the Shah in1979, the Iranian military enjoyed a working relationship with the West, a relationship that allowed some access to American equipment in the form of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fighter, the Grumman F-14 Tomcat swing-wing carrier-based interceptor, the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter and the Bell 206 series multirole helicopter to name a few. After the collapse of Iran to the Islamic Revolution, the military ties ended though the damage had been done. Iran now possessed modern hardware from which to learn from and influence their future military needs with. Iranian industry took to illegal production of the Bell 206 JetRanger as the "Panha Shabaviz 2061" and the type entered service in 1998, continuing operation today with the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force. A variant was then developed as the HESA Shahed 278 four-seat light utility helicopter of which first flight was recorded in 2002 or 2005 (exact year unknown). The next logical step for the series, therefore, became a dedicated armed scouting platform developed from the tried and proven Bell components and this proved to be the "Shahed 285" which was unveiled by Iranian authorities in 2009.
An interesting design decision on the part of HESA and the Iranian military authorities has been in making the Shahed a single-seat helicopter. While affording the design many inherent benefits - lower cost of production, smaller overall dimensions - this is a very limiting factor concerning modern military combat platforms. Chiefly this places a great deal of responsibility in the hands of the sole operator who now must pilot the aircraft (actively controlling the machine, managing engine controls, etc.) while also relying on himself to be his own weapons officer. This is a technically damning quality that does not allow the aircraft to feature a quick responding helmet mounted display to which the pilot can engage targets with a chin turret of any sort. The pilot must also manage flying the machine while supporting his armament suite thusly resulting in severely restricted situational awareness from the cockpit. The lack of a chin turret forced the installation of a fixed, forward-firing 7.62mm PKMT-type machine gun instead.
The Shahed is categorized as a light attack and reconnaissance helicopter and can therefore be armed or unarmed for the roles. In this way, the platform will serve the Iranian Army in much the same way that the Kiowa Warrior serves American attack helicopters - working in conjunction with AH-1 Cobras and AH-64 Apaches as established "hunter-killer" teams against enemy positions or, chiefly, armor concentrations. There is no reason to believe that the Shahed will be used as a primary warfighter for its tactical value is limited in many areas. The Shahed will not replace the current fleet of Iranian-modified AH-1 Cobras (known locally as the "Toofan").