Iran’s motley fleet of airframes includes a wide variety of antiquated aircraft, including American F-14 Tomcats, McDonell Douglas F-4 Phantom II (that have apparently seen combat in Syrian), as well as Northrop F-5 light attack jets.
One of their lesser-known, and indeed less-capable airframes is a copy…of a copy. Meet the J/F-7.
The F-7 (or sometimes called J-7, after it’s Chinese parent) is an odd duck. The F-7 is a copy of the J-7, which is a copy of the MiG-21. This video of Albanian F-7’s or J-7s shows the decidedly Soviet and antiquated nature of the airframes.
The parent airframe, the MiG-21, was conceived of in 1953. Planes that had been adequate during the Korean War were obsolete by the late 1950s due to rapid changes in jet technology related to increasing speed, endurance, and higher ceilings. The MiG-21 was intended to bring the Soviet Union into its just stride and keep up with American counterparts — and hopefully even overtake them.
Despite the Sino-Soviet Split, China was able to gather enough blueprints and airframes to reverse-engineer the MiG-21 and create the J-7. It remained in production until 2013.
These days the F-7 is relegated to a trainer aircraft for Iranian pilots. It made a slight blip in the headlines in 2018, when one of Iran’s F-7 training airframes crash-landed in the “near the city of Hassanabad in Jarqavieh Olya district, Isfahan province.”
Chinese state media quoted an Iranian Air Force public relations official by saying that the crash was due to “Technical deficits.”
Although the cause of the crash was not specific, Iran’s aircraft suffer from a number of factors. Spare parts are hard to come by, though domestic production has attempted to fill this hole, although Iran’s true manufacturing capabilities, particularly for higher-end aircraft and tank components are likely seriously inadequate, or essentially rebranding, repainting or rebadging of other countries vintage technology.
Compounding the problem is the excessively high number of flight hours that Iranian airframes likely have on them, given their old age — some of the airframes are likely from the late 1960s or even earlier. Despite upgrades and reinforcements, particularly to wings, there are just so many flight hours possible. The crash in the sand is a testament to that.
Perhaps one of the few remaining roles that the F-7 platform can fulfill is as a test platform (albeit an unreliable one) for other technologies, among these bombs and missiles.
Just last year, the Iranian Air Force “unveiled” a new series of missiles (supposedly precision munitions), called the Yasin, Balaban, and a new munition called Qaem. Although touted by Iranian state media as new, the “Yasin was already tested and fired from an Iranian F7 fighter jet during a military drill in 2017.” Not exactly a revelation.
Iran’s J/F-7 fleet doesn’t have any combat records under its belt, nor any glamorous attributes. Still, due to Iran’s resistance economy, the J/F-7 is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer with The National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.